History Highlights #2: Zion’s Youth 1870-1910

by | Apr 24, 2016

ZION’S YOUTH: 1870-1910

 The great movement of the Church from Illinois and Iowa to these mountains, in 1847 . . . developed among both men and women the highest art of scoutcraft, perhaps that has been found among any pioneers in the history of our country.

—Lyman R. Martineau, YMMIA Athletic Committee Chairman, 1912


Joseph Smith authorized the organization of the first Young People’s Improvement Association in 1843. During the following years additional societies for youth were established among the Saints; however, there was no central Churchwide organization until several decades later.

On May 21, 1913, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officially affiliated as a chartered organization with the Boy Scouts of America. While this date marked the beginning of an inspired partnership, the foundations of the dynamic LDS-BSA relationship were actually laid many years earlier.

The vanguard company of Mormon pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847. Within thirty years, settlements had been established throughout Utah and the American West, a university was founded, and construction was started on three temples. The desert began to “blossom as a rose,” and Zion and its people were flourishing.

Despite the prosperity of the Saints, however, a general concern was felt among Church leaders regarding the youth of Zion. By 1880, 44 percent of Utah’s population was fourteen years old or younger, and according to one record, “Zion had its share of misbehavers.” In an effort to more fully teach and train Latter-day youth, Church auxiliary organizations were established during the 1860s and 1870s.


President Brigham Young felt a special concern for the young men of the Church, observing that boys often had plenty of leisure time yet very few organized intellectual and recreational activities. In June 1875, President Brigham Young instructed recently returned missionary Elder Junius F. Wells to organize “a society of young men for mutual improvement.”

“Let the keynote of your work be the establishment in the youth of individual testimony of the truth and . . . the development of the gifts within them, . . . cultivating a knowledge and an application of the eternal principles 
of the great science of life.”

—President Brigham Young, as cited by B.H. Roberts, Americana, vol. 10 (1915), 54

Junius F. Wells was the son of Church leader Daniel H. Wells and Hannah Corrilla Free. He graduated from the University of Deseret at the age of seventeen and then served a mission to Great Britain (1872-1874). Brother Wells was twenty-one years old when the YMMIA was organized.

Junius F. Wells was the son of Church leader Daniel H. Wells and Hannah Corrilla Free. He graduated from the University of Deseret at the age of seventeen and then served a mission to Great Britain (1872-1874). Brother Wells was twenty-one years old when the YMMIA was organized.

 Elder Wells called a meeting in the Salt Lake City Thirteenth Ward on June 10 and formally organized the first Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association (YMMIA). He later recorded, “The spirit of the work fell upon me from the moment I was chosen to undertake it.” The purpose of the new organization was to “help young men develop their gifts, to stand up and speak, and to bear testimony.” By 1890 over 11,000 young men were enrolled in the YMMIA.

Priesthood Organization Changes

The teaching of Zion’s youth had gained special attention in the Church, yet it was still common for both Aaronic Priesthood and Melchizedek Priesthood offices to be filled by grown men. A First Presidency letter on July 11, 1877, reorganized and standardized priesthood quorums and of- fices, with an emphasis on young men serving in the Aaronic Priesthood.

The letter stated, “It would be excellent training for the young men if they had the opportunity of acting in the offices of the lesser priesthood.” Within a year, the practice of ordaining boys to the Aaronic Priesthood was well established, and hundreds of young men became deacons.

Although new priesthood guidelines introduced young boys to quorum activity, specific duties and ages had not yet been clearly assigned. Deacons throughout the Church performed a variety of services, such as cutting firewood, delivering food to the poor, and passing the sacrament.



“The [YMMIA] organization spread with astonishing rapidity, and in a few months, towns where there had been crowds of uncouth boys loitering around the stores, hollowing in the streets and breaking horses on the Sabbath day, a change was seen.
 In some cases the roughest of these boys had been chosen for presidents of associations.” —Contributor, Oct. 1879, 13

Recreation and Religion

Around the turn of the twentieth century, leaders throughout the United States became increasingly concerned about the attitude of leisure spreading among American youth. Boys were not always required to plow fields, tend to animals, and perform rigorous physical labor. Historian Edward Rowan wrote, “There was a general feeling in the early years of the twentieth century that immigration, movement into the cities, and the loss of the frontier had weakened the youth of America.”

In Utah, Church members shared similar concerns about the moral and mental well-being of their young people. Many parents and grandparents of the generation had pulled handcarts or driven wagons across the plains, yet their


In 1910, Bryant S. Hinckley,
a member of the YMMIA general board and father of future Church President Gordon B. Hinckley, traveled to Chicago, New York, Boston,
and other cities to study gymnasiums and athletics. He returned to Utah and assisted in establishing the Deseret Gymnasium in Salt Lake City, serving as general secretary and manager. Brother Hinckley felt that the new facility would help Latter-day youth live
“nobler and better lives.”

children and grandchildren were growing up in a society of increased ease and opportunity. Church leaders felt a pressing need to adopt new teaching methods and activity programs that would strengthen and appeal to youth.

During the April 1903 general conference, President Joseph F. Smith encouraged manual training for young men so that “the nobility of practical labor, and the contentment arising therefrom, will be more clearly manifest among the people.” Five years later, in the opening address of the April 1908 general conference, he requested that boys be given “something to do that will make them interested in the work of the Lord.”

In response to President Smith’s 1908 request, reforms known as the “Priesthood Movement” were proposed. It was recommended that each boy move systematically through Aaronic Priesthood offices with fixed ages. These ages established the basis for priesthood quorums and classes.

The YMMIA general board also passed a resolution to “take up educational, literary, and recreative studies, permeated by religious thought” and resolved that “athletic work be encouraged and established wherever practicable.”

“Athletic work had the effect of drawing nearly all of the junior boys in the ward to the meetings. . . . The officers of the M.I.A. . . . have not found it necessary to do any missionary work. . . . The boys themselves have done it by bringing their companions to Mutual.”

—Improvement Era, Aug. 1909, 840-841

Despite some hesitation from older Church members about combining recreation and religion, the introduction of athletic activities to the YMMIA resulted in an astounding response from the young men. Youth attendance increased significantly, and missionary work was performed naturally as the young men brought their friends to YMMIA meetings and activities. The standardization of priesthood ages and additional emphasis on recreation laid the foundation for a new era of training young men within the Church.

~This excerpt taken from the book Century of Honor: 100 Years of Scouting in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. To order the book click here.