That is, of course, a phrase from Brigham Young’s sermon in 1856 dispatching the people of Salt Lake City to take life-saving aid to the handcart pioneers stranded on the plains: “Prayer is good, but when baked potatoes and milk are needed, prayer will not supply their place.”
Even as war raged in 1943 and 1944 and 1945, when some church members called for a relaxation of fast offerings and welfare work in light of wartime conditions, the church called on its members in the U.S. to increase the rate of contributions, and to accept additional assignments of quilt-making, sewing, and canning. Some of it was to meet immediate need, but much of it was deliberately stockpiled against the day when the war would end and church members overseas could be assisted, as they no doubt would need.
In May, 1945, as the war ended in Europe, church gears began turning. As best as could then be determined, based on the last available reports – 1938, for some countries – the church had nearly 30,000 members in Europe, in three classifications:
1. The liberated countries of Finland, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, France, Belgium, and Czechoslovakia (7,245 members)
2. Germany and Austria (14,400 members)
3. Great Britain, Sweden, and Switzerland (8,145 members)
Saints in the third group, while in need of assistance, were receiving general American aid, and for the most part had retained their means of producing at least some food and clothing. Saints in the second group could not be reached until Allied authorities permitted access in mid-1946. Saints in the first group were in perhaps the worst need, yet could be most easily reached immediately, and to them the church turned first.
Shipping was the first hurdle – no facilities were available for shipping or distributing large amounts of goods. The parcel post system had been quickly re-established, however. Although shipments were limited to individual packages weighing no more than 11 pounds each, an unlimited number of packages could be mailed. The church decided, therefore, to mail two 11-pound packages (one of bedding and one of clothing) to every Latter-day Saint in the liberated countries.
The Relief Society went into overdrive. Between October 29, 1945, and March 31, 1946, they had sorted, wrapped, and shipped 14,679 packages from post offices throughout Utah, Idaho, and southern California. Packages were carefully weighed, with every ounce allowed – when bundles weighed slightly under the limit, they would be brought up to weight by the addition of a bar of soap, a can of food, even a package of sewing needles if that was all that could be added.
Relief Societies in other areas went into high production mode. Representative are those of the Northern and Northwestern States Missions, which produced baby layettes – not a layette consisting of a blanket and a couple of nightgowns, but mammoth layettes containing three dozen diapers, six gowns, four short jackets, three shirts, four pairs of bootees, four pairs of socks, six receiving blankets, a large blanket, a pair of wool bootees, a bonnet-and-jacket set, one rubber sheet, a bib, a sheet/blanket, and as much cotton, oil, powder, soap, and safety pins as could be squeezed in under the weight limit.
These packages were addressed to individuals where their names and addresses were known; the bulk of the packages, though, were addressed to mission homes and district presidents with the hope that they would reach members – or someone else in need.
(If the pixels on your screen start to run at this point, it’s because I can’t type without tearing up. Yesterday as I assembled the following letters, a librarian came over to see whether I was all right because he had noticed I kept wiping my eyes. Can’t help it. I’ve read these letters several times before, but they get to me every time.)
Recipients of the packages soon began writing thank you notes back to the Saints who had sent them:
From the non-member daughter of a member mother in France:
My mother, who doesn’t speak English, asked me to thank you for your parcels. It was a very good surprise for us – I say for us because I benefited by them, too. My mother gave me the dress, which fits me very well, the baby clothes, and a blanket. I recently married, and it’s very difficult in France to find any bedding. Before that we covered ourselves with our coats.
We thank you very much for the packages which we received from America. My wife was so happy that she cried for joy, and jointly we send our heartiest thanks which we ask you to forward to the Church in America. My wife says it was the greatest joy she had since May 5th (the day of our liberation). We are happy and grateful to the Church.
The parcel sent by you October 29th has been received. Accept all of you who have contributed our sincere thanks. it was a very fine variety of goods, which enabled us to again really wash, and to sew with real thread, for we were not used to that in a great while. There has been a lot of good things gathered together by the saints in Zion and made us conscious of the unity in spirit and cause, which means to help those who belong to that same kingdom. We hope God will bless you all for what you have done for your fellow brethren and sisters.
Also from the Netherlands:
Sometime ago it came to my mind to write a letter to thank you for the box of clothes I received from the Church Welfare. I don’t know if this letter will come to the place where it belongs because I don’t know to whom to write, so I am addressing it to the address that was on the box. In the box sent to me was a lady’s coat, a dress, two suits underwear, a shirt, sweater, two pair stockings, and five bars of soap.
We went on our knees with thankful hearts to our Heavenly Father for the things we needed so much. We thank the members of the Church that have done this for us. We thank the Church for this nice and wise plan and that you are mindful of us here in our so poor Netherland. Oh, how much happiness it will bring among God’s children, and what happiness to receive these things at this time.
As Elder Ezra Taft Benson progressed on his European tour assessing needs and re-establishing contact with the branches, he sent word of packages received:
Over 600 Welfare packages have been received by the saints. All packages have been opened upon entering the country and some items have been removed by marauders, but the items received have in large measure taken care of their present clothing needs, and over 100 packages have been set aside by the saints for shipment to the members in Germany as soon as permission to do so is obtained.
The Church has one small branch in Finland. These saints have been grievously impoverished by the war and are finding the Welfare packages most helpful.
The people of Norway are quite run down physically because of the rigors of long enemy occupation of their land. Much of the need has been relieved through the assistance received from the saints in the Danish and Swedish missions and the present Welfare shipments are continuing to give them the more necessary items of food, clothing, and bedding.
They had received only 30 packages, practically all of which had been opened and most of the readily edible food products removed.
Some officials were far more honest than those who raided the packages to Czechoslovakia and other places where Elder Benson reported pilfered goods. A postmaster in Amsterdam, not a Mormon, could not help but notice the supply of goods coming to his office from America, but he did not stoop to robbing someone else to meet his own great need. Instead, he wrote:
Being a postal official at the Central Station Post Office at Amsterdam, charged with the distribution and forwarding of postal parcels, I picked up your address among the senders. As many articles are very scant here in Holland or even not to be had at all, I kindly beg to request you to send me a postal parcel, if possible, containing some men’s and women’s underwear and textile goods. I should not have had the courage to ask you this favour, but as I told you already, I need it badly. I know that the remittance of money to your country is not yet allowed, but I assure you that I shall send you the amount due as soon as it will be permitted to remit money again, and I am gladly willing to do you a service in return.
The Relief Society reported that parcels were immediately dispatched to both the postmaster and his wife.
By the end of 1946, government regulations permitted the sending of similar parcels to Japan. Although the church had had no mission presence there since 1924, they were aware of 109 members on the rolls. In an effort to reach them, Relief Societies in Hawaii sent 200 11-pound packages to addresses they hoped would reach members, while an additional 154 bundles were sent from the storehouses in Salt Lake City. I have been unable to find any report on whether these packages reached Japanese Saints — presumably they would have been of use to anyone to whom they were delivered.
And thus went the first phase of a massive effort to send aid to the Saints in war districts in the months following the end of the war.