During the 19th century, LDS leaders were regularly in the nation’s capital on behalf of the Church. The first to come was the Prophet Joseph Smith, who, with Elias Higbee, spent part of the winter of 1839-1840 seeking redress of the grievances suffered by the Saints in Missouri. While there, the two presented a lengthy petition to Congress and met with President Martin Van Buren, who infamously told the Church leaders, “Your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you.” The same year Parley P. Pratt published an address in Washington setting forth the principles of the gospel and saw that a copy was presented to the President and each Cabinet member.
In 1844, Orson Hyde and Orson Pratt of the Quorum of the Twelve, later joined by fellow apostles Heber C. Kimball, William Smith and Lyman Wight, represented the cause of the Saints to President John Tyler. Elder Jesse C. Little, president of the Eastern States Mission, was the Church’s representative in Washington in 1846 and negotiated the raising of a 500-man Mormon battalion as part of the United States Army of the West during the Mexican War. A few years later, Orson Pratt again visited the seat of government, where he, together with Jedediah M. Grant, met with President Millard Fillmore. While there, for about 18 months in 1853-1854, Elders Pratt and Grant published a monthly periodical, The Seer, named in memory of Joseph Smith.
After arriving in the Great Basin, Church leaders petitioned Congress for a state government, but Utah was instead granted territorial status. While pursuing statehood over the next 45 years, Latter-day Saints serving as Utah’s territorial delegates to Congress lived in Washington and sought to advance the interests of Utah and the Church.
In 1903, Elder Reed Smoot of the Quorum of the Twelve was elected to represent Utah in the U. S. Senate and took up residence in Washington where he spent the next 30 years. Desiring to share the gospel with LDS students attending area universities, as well as with Church members from the West who were employed by the federal government, Sen. Smoot hosted sacrament meetings in his home from December 1909 until May 1920. Similar meetings had previously been held in the home of Utah Congressman Joseph Howell from 1904 to 1907. During this same period a small branch also functioned briefly in nearby Capitol Heights, Md., where a one-story frame meetinghouse was built by 1918.
To meet the needs of the influx of Latter-day Saints in government employment during World War I who then remained in the nation’s capital, the Washington Branch was organized in June 1920. With the growth of the federal government during the New Deal era, many additional Latter-day Saints came to the area seeking employment. By 1937, there were 1,800 members of the Church in the Washington area.
Church leaders in Salt Lake City authorized the acquisition in 1924 of a building site at Sixteenth Street and Columbia Road N. W. The seller of the property insisted that an impressive building be constructed in what was then an exclusive neighborhood. Utah architect Don Carlos Young designed a stone structure whose spire was crowned with a golden statue of the Angel Moroni similar to the one atop the Salt Lake Temple.
Ground was broken for the Washington Chapel in 1930 and was dedicated in November 1933 by President Heber J. Grant, who was accompanied for the occasion by both of his counselors in the First Presidency and five members of the Twelve.
The Washington Chapel quickly became a show place for introducing people to the Church and gave rise to regular tours of the building, organ concerts and other musical programs and the organization in 1935 of the first seventies quorum in the Eastern United States.
With missionary work accelerating, coupled with the continuing influx of Church members from Utah and elsewhere, additional branches were organized in 1938 in Arlington, Va., and Chevy Chase, Md. This was soon followed by the creation of the Capitol District, which included the Washington Branch, the two new branches, and additional branches in Baltimore and Greenbelt, Md, and Waynesboro, Pa.
In June 1940, the district became the Washington Stake, only the second stake organized in the Eastern United States since the exodus from Nauvoo. Idaho native Ezra Taft Benson served as president of the new stake, a position he held until March 1944 when he was released because of his call several months earlier to the Quorum of the Twelve.
During World War II and the ensuing years, growing numbers of Latter-day Saints came to Washington seeking education and employment or through assignment to the many nearby military installations. During the later 1940s and the 1950s, Church members increasingly established residences in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs and commuted to the District of Columbia to work.
Numerous new wards and branches were created and many meetinghouses were built to serve their needs. By 1963, the Washington metropolitan area was home to some 8,000 Church members, leading to the creation that year of the Potomac Stake, which took in the Washington Stake’s Virginia and southeastern Maryland wards. In 1970, two more stakes were created in greater Washington — the Mount Vernon Stake in Virginia and the Chesapeake Stake in Maryland — with another stake being organized in Baltimore in 1974.
When the Washington Chapel was sold in 1975 — due to the deterioration of the surrounding neighborhood and the need for major repairs to the building — and the Washington Ward was discontinued, all the wards and stakes of the Washington D. C. Stake were located in Maryland.
For the next several years the Church’s presence in the nation’s capital was only symbolic until a singles ward and a Spanish-speaking branch were established in 1981. In 1987, the Washington D. C. 2nd Ward was organized to meet the needs of inner-city residents. These and other Church units created in subsequent years became part of the District of Columbia District in 1994. In 2004, the district consisted of seven branches, four of which held meetings in Chevy Chase or Suitland, Md., just outside the boundaries of Washington proper.
With the mid-1970s departure of the Church from the District of Columbia, the LDS focus in the greater Washington area shifted to the Washington Temple in nearby Kensington, Md. Washington Stake president J. Willard Marriott Sr. had recommended to the First Presidency in March 1954 that the Church build a temple in his community to meet the needs of the thousands of Latter-day Saints living east of the Mississippi River. Church leaders advised President Marriott that “the matter would be taken up in due time.”
Seven years later the First Presidency authorized the establishment of a temple site committee, which in November 1968 recommended building on a 57-acre plot in Kensington that had been purchased in 1962. Ground was broken less than a month later, construction began in the spring of 1971. President Spencer W. Kimball dedicated the temple in November 1974.
The new structure, prominently situated near the beltway surrounding Washington, quickly became a dynamic symbol of the Church and many were eager to know more about it. The increased visibility of the Latter-day Saints in greater Washington was evidenced by the fact that more than 750,000 people toured the temple during the six-week open house prior to its dedication.
Interest continued so strong that a major visitors center was erected adjacent to the temple, with that facility being dedicated by President Kimball in July 1976 in connection with the Tabernacle Choir’s participation in the celebration of the U. S. Bicentennial. By 2004, four million visitors have since toured the center.
The temple complex was only one facet of the Church’s higher profile in the nation’s capital during the final decades of the 20th century. Beginning with the 1953 appointment of Elder Ezra Taft Benson as Secretary of Agriculture in the Eisenhower administration, several Latter-day Saints have served in the Cabinet, while a growing number of Church members have been elected to Congress. The Tabernacle Choir was invited to perform at the inaugurations of U. S. presidents Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, Richard M. Nixon in 1969, Ronald Reagan in 1981, George H. W. Bush in 1989, and George W. Bush in 2001.
Following the organization of the Public Communications Council of Washington, D. C. in 1974, Church-service and professional public relations personnel worked to keep the Church and its activities constantly before the public. This effort was aided by the fact that the Washington metropolitan area was home by 1985 to 63,000 Church members in 19 stakes and more than 100 wards and branches, giving the area the highest concentration of Latter-day Saints on the Eastern Seaboard. The ethnically diverse LDS population included substantial numbers of Asians, Hispanics and African-Americans, as well as those of many other countries.
As official spokeswoman for the Church in the greater Washington area, Beverly Campbell joined her efforts with those of local LDS leaders to make the Church even better known. Two of the resulting programs have enjoyed considerable visibility. Since 1978, annual Christmas lighting ceremonies have been held on the grounds of the Washington D. C. Temple. In recent years, Washington’s diplomatic corps has been invited to attend these ceremonies and each year an ambassador from one of the countries participates, along with a General Authority, in switching on the lights. With the full-time Public Affairs office seeking to enhance international contacts for the Church, a Western Family Picnic has also been held each year since 1991 at the Marriott Farm in rural Hume, Va., for ambassadors and embassy officials to acquaint them and their families with the Church’s values and history.
On 1 July 1986 the Washington D.C. Mission was reorganized into the Washington D.C. North and Washington D.C. South missions.
Sources: Andrew Jenson, “Washington,” Encyclopedic History of the Church, 1941; Julian C. Lowe and Florian H. Thayn, History of the Mormons in the Greater Washington Area: Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Washington, D. C. Area, 1839-1991, 1991; Lee H. Burke, History of the Washington D.C. LDS Ward: From Beginnings (1839) to Dissolution (1975), 1990; Mary L. Bradford, “From Colony to Community: the Washington, D. C., Saints,” Ensign, August 1974; Jesse R. Smith, History of the Washington Temple, 1983; Lois Blake, “The Church in Washington: LDS / DC,” This People, August-September 1984; “Membership triples in Nation’s Capital,” Church News, 2 December 1989; Lee Davidson, “Christmas Lighting Illuminates Friendly Ties,” Church News, 12 December 1992; Alysa Hatch Whitlock, “Ambassadors’ Families Welcomed at Annual Picnic,” Ensign, February 1996; “Visitors center, new theater dedicated in Washington, D. C.,” Church News, 2 December 2000; “LDS Number 16 in 106th Congress,” Church News, 14 November 1998.