The stage was set for New York’s role in the Restoration when Joseph and Lucy Mack Smith moved from Vermont to the Palmyra-Manchester area in 1816. Their son Joseph, dismayed by the competing claims of revivalist preachers, sought divine direction in the spring of 1820 and experienced the First Vision in the Sacred Grove on the Smith farm. Three years later, he was visited by Moroni, who told him of gold plates buried in the nearby Hill Cumorah. After obtaining the plates in 1827, Joseph translated most of the unsealed portion at the Whitmer home in Fayette, N.Y. He completed the translation in 1829, then arranged for E. B. Grandin to print the Book of Mormon at Palmyra. The first edition was completed March 1830. (In the meantime, Martin Harris, seeking verification of Joseph Smith’s claims, in 1828 took handwritten extracts from the plates to scholars Charles Anthon and Samuel L. Mitchill in New York City.) The Church of Christ, as it was then known, was organized in the Whitmer home on 6 April 1830. In addition, 25 of the revelations later published in the Doctrine and Covenants were received in New York.
The initial missionary work took place in New York, with the Prophet’s younger brother Samuel being the first preacher of the restored gospel. Within a year more than 100 had been baptized in the state. When Joseph moved the Church’s headquarters to Kirtland, Ohio, in 1831, most of the New York members followed him. Missionaries crisscrossed the state during the next decade and a half, preaching to relatives and acquaintances and in public gatherings. Late in 1832, Joseph Smith himself paid a brief visit to Albany, New York City, and Boston in company with Newel K. Whitney. Many small branches were organized in New York, but time and again Church members left for Kirtland or other gathering places further west.
In July 1837, Parley P. Pratt of the Quorum of the Twelve arrived in New York City. After publishing 4,000 copies of “The Voice of Warning,” one of the most influential tracts of the early Church, Elder Pratt spent six months preaching with very little result — leading him to reflect, “Of all the places in which the English language is spoken, I found the City of New York to be the most difficult as to access to the minds or attention of the people.” During this period, Pratt baptized six and organized a branch that met in an upstairs room on Goerck Street in lower Manhattan. The discouraged apostle was ready to leave the city when a revelation told him to remain in New York because, “the Lord had many people in that city.” Within three weeks, Pratt and companion Elijah Fordham had established 15 meeting places, all of them “filled to overflowing.” As they baptized “almost daily,” additional branches were organized in Brooklyn and elsewhere on Long Island, at Sing Sing [Ossining], and in northern New Jersey.
In May 1839, the Prophet appointed John P. Greene as the first president of the Eastern States Mission. During the next several years, with missionary work concentrated in the British Isles, only a limited number of elders were assigned to America’s Eastern Seaboard, focusing their efforts on the nation’s largest cities — New York, Philadelphia and Boston. During his last general conference in April 1844, Joseph Smith reported the Lord’s instruction that “wherever the Elders of Israel shall build up churches . . . throughout the States, there shall be a stake of Zion. In the great cities, as Boston, New York, &c., there shall be stakes.”
New York City became the principal port of entry for Latter-day Saint emigration from Europe, with the first company of 41 arriving from Liverpool, England, on the Britannia in July 1840. Over the next half century, dozens of companies arrived on ships chartered in Liverpool and were sent on to Nauvoo and later to Utah by Church emigration agents in New York. By 1890, when travel facilities improved to the point that emigration arrangements could be left to individuals, some 50,000 Latter-day Saints had first set foot on American soil in New York City.
New York was also the point of departure for the ship Brooklyn, carrying the first group of 235 Latter-day Saints bound for California, under the direction of Samuel Brannan, leaving in February 1846 for what was then Mexican territory.
Beginning in 1844 an LDS newspaper, The Prophet, was published in New York until the group that sailed on the Brooklyn took the Church’s press with them. Subsequently, when John Taylor of the Quorum of the Twelve was called to head Church efforts in the eastern states in 1855, another weekly paper, The Mormon, was also printed for a time in New York City.
The 1857 outbreak of the Utah War led to the withdrawal of missionaries from the Eastern Seaboard and the suspension of the Church’s European emigration program. A new emigration agent was sent from Salt Lake City when peace was achieved and Church-sponsored ships again began to dock in New York City. There was little missionary activity in the state during the next three decades. Most Latter-day Saint emigrants from Europe proceeded directly to Utah, although a few stayed in the New York City area to finance travel to the West.
When New York became part of the Northern States Mission in 1889, missionaries sought to determine whether any Latter-day Saints still lived in the area. Only 55 were located, with enough in western Long Island that a branch was organized at Oceanside in 1890. Job Pingree was sent to New York City in 1893 to re-open the Eastern States Mission. By 1900, eight conferences (including Brooklyn and New York) had been established in the several states that made up the mission and there were 975 members of the Church.
Over the course of the next half century, Church growth in New York was slow but steady. By 1930, there were 11 branches and 1,500 Latter-day Saints in the state, about two-thirds of them in New York City.
The number of members outside the New York metropolitan area doubled during the following decade — but even so, Rochester, the largest of the 22 branches in upstate New York, had only 83 members in 1940, while many branches were much smaller and nearly a third of the saints were “outlying” members who lived too far away to belong to an organized branch. Nonetheless, this represented considerable progress in Rochester, since the first 20th-century Latter-day Saints, a family of Dutch converts from Europe, the Willemstyns, had only arrived there in 1912, with a branch not being organized until 10 years later. Similarly, in Binghamton near the Pennsylvania state line, a branch was established in the early 1920s made up of a mix of Latter-day Saint emigrants from Europe and local people. Branches located in upstate cities where there were major universities or companies doing business on a nationwide basis attracted a growing number of Church members from Utah and elsewhere, especially after World War II. Such people, given their broader experience with the Church, often provided leadership in New York branches.
General Church leaders’ interest in the area’s history contributed to the growth of one branch in western New York. In 1907, Elder George Albert Smith of the Quorum of the Twelve purchased the Joseph Smith Sr. farm property in Manchester. Eight years later, President Joseph F. Smith called Utah residents Willard W. and Rebecca P. Bean to oversee the farm and re-establish a Latter-day Saint presence in the Palmyra area. During the next quarter century, the Beans helped break down prejudice and improve the Church’s image in Palmyra, as well as assisting in the conversion of local residents. In 1925, a branch was organized that 15 years later had 50 members. In the meantime, Bean was instrumental in helping the Church purchase the Hill Cumorah (1923 and 1928), the Peter Whitmer farm at nearby Fayette (1926), and the Martin Harris farm north of Palmyra (1937). A monument to the Angel Moroni erected atop the hill was dedicated by President Heber J. Grant in July 1935.
Beginning in 1928 an annual Book of Mormon pageant was held at the Smith farm. In 1937, the pageant was moved to the Hill Cumorah and missionary Harold I. Hansen was appointed its director, an assignment he filled for the next 40 years. In 1937, over 13,000 people attended the pageant’s opening night, with Newsweek reporting that 100,000 people attended the pageant in 1948.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the many small upstate branches continued to grow, leading to the January 1962 organization of the Cumorah Stake that included much of western New York. Subsequent growth in membership resulted in divisions to form stakes based in Rochester, Buffalo, and Palmyra. Further east the Susquehanna and Hudson River stakes were created in 1969 and have since developed into the Albany, Ithaca (subsequently Owego), Syracuse, and Utica stakes. The southwestern corner of the state in 1986 became part of the Erie Pennsylvania Stake. In northern New York, branches that were once part of the Montpelier Vermont Stake and Canadian stakes in Ottawa and Montreal were transferred in the year 2000 to the new Potsdam New York District. By 2004, the Church in upstate New York had grown from the 15 congregations operating in 1950 to 77 wards and branches.
The continuing importance of upstate New York in the life of the Church was highlighted by two late-20th-century events. In April 1980, part of general conference was broadcast via satellite from the reconstructed Whitmer home in Fayette where the Church had been organized 150 years earlier. And on the 170th anniversary of the Church, in April 2000, the Palmyra New York Temple, overlooking the Sacred Grove and other historic sites, was dedicated by President Gordon B. Hinckley. The dedication was broadcast to 1,300 stake centers and other Church facilities.
The growth of the Church in the New York City metropolitan area during the past 75 years has been equally dramatic. With Latter-day Saints coming to New York from the West to study or accept employment and many LDS emigrants arriving from Europe after World War I, an impressive meetinghouse was built in Brooklyn in 1918, with headquarters for the Eastern States Mission being constructed on an adjoining lot. By 1930, the local district included branches in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Oceanside, N.Y, as well as across the Hudson River in Newark and Union City, N. J., with a membership of 1,262.
Four years later the New York Stake was created by President Heber J. Grant. The new stake was the first 20th-century stake east of the Rocky Mountains and only the third stake outside the areas of LDS settlement in the West. In many ways it was viewed as a test of how the growing Church might function in the major urban centers of the nation. Besides wards and branches in three of the city’s five boroughs (Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens), the stake included the New Jersey suburbs across the Hudson and suburban Westchester County, N.Y. While there was little increase in membership during the 1940s, the next decade saw a near doubling of the stake’s population, much of it centered in the Long Island, Westchester, and northern New Jersey suburbs, where meetinghouses were built for several wards. Growth across the Hudson was sufficient that in 1960 the three wards there were joined with several branches from the Eastern States Mission to form the New Jersey Stake — at which time portions of southwestern Connecticut were incorporated into the New York Stake.
Further growth was spurred by the LDS pavilion at the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair. The full-time missionary tour guides secured nearly a million referrals and distributed five million tracts and pamphlets. When the fair ended the pavilion was dismantled and used to construct a meetinghouse at nearby Plainview. As a result of the fair, there were thousands of baptisms in the area, making possible the creation of the Long Island Stake.
Another significant development in the New York metropolitan area started about the time of the world’s fair. With Church growth centering in the suburbs, coupled with the deterioration of many inner-city areas, missionary work had long since ceased in Manhattan. In April 1963, mission President Wilburn C. West assigned six elders to work with the island’s seven million residents, with the missionary force growing to 40 by the next summer. One result was the establishment of a Spanish-speaking branch in Manhattan, with missionary work soon spreading to Hispanic neighborhoods in Brooklyn and the Bronx.
Efforts to reach out to the metropolitan area’s racially and ethnically diverse population were further stimulated by the 1978 revelation that extended the priesthood to all worthy males, regardless of race. President Spencer W. Kimball challenged local Church leaders to teach the gospel in the various languages spoken in major urban centers. By the end of 1980, the New York and Plainview stakes included four Spanish wards and branches, a Chinese branch, and a Korean branch. A decade later the number of Spanish units in the area’s three stakes had grown to nine. In 1991, districts were organized in Brooklyn and Queens to better accommodate inner-city Church growth in those boroughs, with another district being organized in the Bronx four years later. By 2004, the Brooklyn district had become a stake and the Bronx district had been incorporated into the new Westchester New York Stake, while three districts were functioning in Queens and elsewhere in the western portion of Long Island.
In 2004, the seven stakes and three districts that resulted from the original New York Stake included 75 wards and branches within the boundaries of New York state, of which 24 were Spanish units, while two more operated in Chinese and one in Korean. An additional 14 wards and branches included substantial numbers of Latter-day Saints whose principal language was other than English. Local estimates indicated that between 40 and 50 percent of the Church membership in the area was Hispanic. While the majority of them were baptized in the New York metropolitan area, an important percentage had come from the Caribbean and Central and South America after joining the Church in their homelands.
As the number of Latter-day Saints in the metropolitan area increased, places were needed for the many new congregations to meet. In 1971, the Church purchased property on Columbus Avenue near Lincoln Center on which a multi-story building was constructed as the home to several wards, besides serving as a visitors center and mission headquarters. Following the May 1975 dedication of this facility by President Spencer W. Kimball, many additional meetinghouses were built in the area, making a total of 19 buildings available by 1994, with another dozen being constructed in the next five years, and six more by 2004.
With most New York City Church members being migrants, whether from predominantly Latter-day Saint areas of the western United States or a host of other countries, local leaders at the start of the 21st century were cautiously optimistic that a higher percentage of their people would become permanent residents of the metropolitan area. Such hopes were encouraged by President Gordon B. Hinckley’s March 2002 announcement that a temple would be housed in the Church facility at Lincoln Center. Following extensive remodeling and an open house attended by more than 53,000, the Manhattan New York Temple was dedicated June 13, 2004 by President Gordon B. Hinckley, the 119th operating temple in the Church.
In 2002, membership in the greater New York area reached 67,207. In 2004, membership reached 69,882.
Following a two-day open house in November 2005, a 33,000-square-foot meetinghouse on 128th and Lenox Avenue in Harlem was dedicated on 4 December 2005. The stately red brick facility will meet the needs of the growing two wards in Harlem, and has been the means of uniting members with residents of Harlem who perceived the Church as white dominated. The new meetinghouse drew media attention along the east coast as a sign of an American curch growing among all races.
In 2005, membership reached 71,560.
Andrew Jenson, “Eastern States Mission” and “New York,” Encyclopedic History of the Church, 1941; Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, 1984; Larry C. Porter, A Study of the Origins of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the States of New York and Pennsylvania, 1816-1831, dissertation, 1971 (published 2000); Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 1:295, 6:319; Parley P. Pratt, Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, 1874; David F. Boone, “Palmyra Revisited: The New York Mission of Willard W. and Rebecca P. Bean, 1915-1939,” Mary Jane Woodger, “Harold and the Hill: Harold I. Hansen and the Hill Cumorah Pageant, 1937-1977,” and Veneese C. Nelson, “The Palmyra Temple: A Significant Link to LDS Church History,” all in Alexander L. Baugh and Andrew H. Hedges, eds., Regional Studies in Latter-day Saint History: New York-Pennsylvania, 2002; Horace H. Christensen, “History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Binghamton, New York Area, 1825 through 1979,” Church History Library; Charles J. Ingerson, “Seventy Years of Mormonism in Northwestern Monroe County (The Rochester II Ward), 1910-1980,” Church History Library; William L. Woolf, “The Church in New York City,” Improvement Era, December 1938; Joan Lemanczyk and Claire Wendt, Beginnings and New Beginnings: A Short History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Long Island, 1981; Heidi Woldrop, “New York LDS Blend in Language Melting Pot,” Church News, 23 December 1984; Brent L. Top, “Legacy of the Mormon Pavilion,” Ensign, October 1989; Glen Nelson, “Brooklyn’s Window on the World,” Ensign, June 1990; Mike Cannon, “Diversity of Saints Find Unity in Gospel in New York City,” Church News, 27 August 1994; James W. Lucas, “Mormons in New York City,” in Tony Carnes and Anna Karpathakis, eds., New York Glory: Religions in the City, 2001; Don Searle, “Church Blossoms in the Big Apple,” Ensign, June 2004; Shaun D. Stahle, “‘Not That We’re Back, It’s That We’re Still Here'” and “Manhattan Temple Ready for Dedication June 13,” both in Church News, 12 June 2004; Carrie Moore, “Members Come to N. Y. — to Stay,” Deseret Morning News, 12 June 2004; Shaun D. Stahle, “Miracle in Manhattan: Temple Dedicated in New York,” Church News, 19 June 2004; Shaun Stahle, “Harlem meetinghouse,” Church News, 26 November 2005.
- United States List of Stakes of the Church
- United States List of Mormon Temples
- 2010 ChurchNews Almanac - New York