Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » On the Eve of War, 1940

On the Eve of War, 1940

By: Ardis E. Parshall - September 01, 2009

Elder Thomas E. McKay, formerly president of the Swiss-German Mission, was appointed to serve as president of the European Mission, with headquarters at Salt Lake City, during World War II, keeping in touch with our members in Europe and providing for their welfare as best he could at such a distance and under wartime conditions.

On April 5, 1940, he reported in General Conference on the state of the Church he had left when he and the last of the elders from the U.S. had had to leave Europe.

… People that I met on my first mission, forty years ago, have sons now in the mission field, or they have been. Babies that I blessed on that first mission are now leaders, one of them presiding over the West German Mission. Many of the parents, who were Sunday School children at that time, have had sons in the mission field. All of the missionaries in the Swiss Mission, except two, have been born since that mission twenty-eight years ago. The large majority of these missionaries are sons of either parents or grandparents born in Switzerland, and I want to tell you parents that they are a credit to you and a credit to the Church, and their strong testimonies, as well as those of their parents, are a practical demonstration of the promise, “if ye will do the work, ye shall know.”

The Swiss and German Mission twenty-eight years ago comprised all of Germany, Austria, Hungary, Switzerland and France. Today there are five Missions in these countries. They are doing well. Of course, they are handicapped because of the evacuation of all our missionaries and mission presidents, but I am pleased to report that the local people are carrying on. Quite a number of those people who are now in charge of the work have been born in the church; they understand the gospel and are well qualified to carry on; they have faith; they are not discouraged because, as they say, they have the Gospel.

Some of our branches have had to be closed, but in the main they are all functioning. Two branches which we have had to close – very fine branches, too, one of which I think had the best record in tithe-paying in the Church – were located in Strassbourg and Muehlhausen, France. These cities were evacuated when war was declared. The people, our members among them, had to leave over night, with only a bundle of clothing to take with them. For weeks we didn’t know just where they were. Finally we were able to get some letters through, and they were located. As soon as arrangements could be made with the French and Swiss authorities for permission to cross the border, one of our brethren was sent to visit them, taking a considerable sum of money with him to help make them as comfortable as possible.

We had learned, just for an example, that thirty-five thousand people were being taken care of in a city of thirty thousand population. You can imagine what that would mean, with the limited accommodations. Some members, we learned, were sleeping in bathrooms; others sleeping in the halls. So we sent considerable money with this good brother, a local brother, to buy bed springs, bedding, curtains, and other things. By sending some telegrams, and telephoning, he succeeded in getting most of them together. They held a testimony meeting.

When this brother came back he said: “President McKay, you sent me there to give them spiritual uplift and to encourage them, but I received much more help spiritually from them than I was able to give them.” Those people, although they didn’t know whether they would ever see an Elder again, an authority of the Church, had put away their tithing as usual. They had received work – some of them – and they had been blessed. This local brother brought back nearly as much money as we had sent to help them. They said: “You express our thankfulness to President McKay for the help that he has sent us, and tell him that we are all right, and are not discouraged, because we have the gospel.” That is the faith of those people over there, brothers and sisters. They are keeping the commandments of the Lord and are doing the will of the Father.

It is difficult to keep all the branches organized. We get them organized, then our brethren are taken into the army. About six hundred of our brethren are in the army in Germany. Seven of them have lost their lives – not in battle, however. They are praying that they will not have to fight. They are peace-loving, those members. They have no hate in their hearts, but a love for all mankind, the love of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We have committees appointed, so that as soon as a vacancy occurs, another man is called to take his place. We have called sisters on missions, to take charge of the office work, and they are getting along very nicely. They are keeping busy and are trying to do the will of the Father.

They know, as I know, that God lives; that He is our Father; that we are all His children; that he loves us, and because He loves us He has given us the Gospel. … May He help us always to do His will, and thereby retain this testimony that we have, I humbly pray …



  1. As one who has studied the experience of the LDS very extensively, I am always astounded at how the European Saints survived during World War II. The closure of the Strassbourg and Muelhauses branches was temporary. The branches were reopened. Paul Kayser served as branch president in Strassbourg during the war. He is considered the “real father of the Saints in Alsace.” (Church News, 24 Nov. 1945). During this time, the Alsatian Saints suffered but they carried on and even had a number of baptisms during the war. It was difficult for Kayser at times because some of the brethren above him were pro-Nazi and tried to mix Nazism and Mormonism.

    Though McKay does not mention who the local brother was who helped take care of the Saints with the large sum of money, I imagine it was Max Zimmer from Switzerland. Being Swiss he was really one of the few links between the European Saints and Salt Lake City and he often checked in on the Saints during the war.

    Comment by Steve C. — September 1, 2009 @ 10:33 am

  2. Thanks for those important additional details, Steve. Saints rushing to aid other Saints, regardless of nationality, is of course what attracted me to this talk, and this was a story I hadn’t heard before.

    When are you going to publish your history and make it easier on us to read it?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 1, 2009 @ 10:49 am

  3. Wow that was fascinating stuff Ardis and Steve it makes one wonder how difficult and frightening to be in the church as all your connections collapsed, separated from the main leadership and left at the whims of a dictator and his mad men.

    Comment by JonW — September 1, 2009 @ 2:55 pm

  4. BTW: Ardis was there a reason you published this article today–i.e. the 70th anniversary of the beginning of World War II, 1 September 1939?

    Comment by Steve C. — September 1, 2009 @ 4:42 pm

  5. You noticed!

    And yet, Jon, the church provided a support system even in those times. How frightening not to be able to draw on those connections for strength, even in a limited way!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 1, 2009 @ 4:47 pm

  6. Thanks for posting this, Ardis. I love WWII stuff.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — September 1, 2009 @ 7:24 pm

  7. Jon and Ardis:
    To me that is one of the big stories of the Church in Europe during World War II. The Church in Europe was partially cut off from HQ in SLC from ’39 to ’41 and completely isolated from ’41 to ’45. During this time, the native members stepped up and ran the affairs of the Church serving as branch, district and mission presidents. They took care of their own spiritual and temporal needs as best they could and in a very admirable way. During the year prior to the outbreak of the war (from Oct. 1938 to Aug. 1939) mission leaders knew that war was on the way. So they spent that year training potential leaders and preparing leadership and lesson manuals. Were there things the German Mormons did wrong during the war? Sure. But they did so many things right and under extraordinary conditions. It is just amazing.

    Comment by Steve C. — September 1, 2009 @ 7:38 pm

  8. I’m sure I read somewhere in an Ensign once that after the war when Church leaders returned to Germany (might have been Austria) they found members had been lighting candles on the Sacrament table as a slight regression into the Mass of their past religious life. It was used as an example of how quickly incorrect ideas can take hold, but the article must have been a while ago now.

    Maybe it’s because I have just woken up, but Ardis could you please explain the post title?! Should I read it as

    ‘a post about the situation in Europe leading up to the outbreak of war in 1939, but based on a talk given in 1940’ or

    ‘a post about a talk given in 1940 on the eve of the U.S. entry into the war later that year?’

    answers to my email address at ‘confused pedants r us’

    Comment by Anne (U.K) — September 2, 2009 @ 2:47 am

  9. I had some of the same questions, Anne, and, resolving all ambiguities in Ardis’s favor, settled on the following:

    The events Elder McKay describes took place after France’s declaration of war (in early September 1939), so the title cannot refer to the period before that declaration.

    Elder McKay’s talk in April 1940 was surely before the entry of the U.S. into the war (in December 1941), so it could be said that they were made on the eve of U.S. involvement, but that’s a long “eve”. More important, the U.S. entry into the war wasn’t the key event in cutting off contact between the European saints and Church headquarters–the missionaries were evacuated at the beginning of September 1939, and travel, even by “neutral” Americans would have been extremely difficult after that.

    So, I concluded that the title referred to the actual commencement of hostilities in the West–after the Polish campaign, which was over by October 1939, there were six months of inactivity until the German invasion of Denmark and Norway in April 1940 and France and the Low Countries in May 1940. Thus Elder McKay’s talk was given during that period of Sitzkrieg or Phony War–France and Germany were “at war” but the Germans hadn’t yet invaded (and annexed) Alsace. The Alsatian saints truly were “on the eve of war” in April 1940–although there’s no way Elder McKay could have known how close they were when he gave his talk on April 5.

    Comment by Mark B. — September 2, 2009 @ 6:18 am

  10. Maybe Ardis should include in the title “before the fall of France.” Just a thought.

    As to the regression of the German Saints; there were cases during the war where ideas/practices crept in that were inconsistant with Church teachings. That said, it was remarkable that being cut off as the Church was in Europe for so long that more apostate ideas didn’t enter in. On the other hand, in 1938 during the Sudeten Crisis, the missionaries were evacuated for about a month. When they returned, they did find that there was quite a bit of apostasy: Branch presidents dipping into the tithing for services rendered, women performing priesthood functions, burning candles and so forth. Thus the reason mission leaders during 1939 placed great emphasis on training and preparing leadership and lesson manuals.

    This is a fun post (as you can tell from my many comments so far :-) )

    Comment by Steve C. — September 2, 2009 @ 7:32 am

  11. Anne, I’m not quite as Americentric as you think I am. :(

    My intention was to refer to the period described in Mark’s last paragraph, which is hereby adopted as the new title except that WordPress won’t display so many characters in that field. Elder McKay gave his talk in April 1940, but he was speaking about events that had occurred several months earlier, to Saints living in a part of Europe that had yet to suffer the full heat of war.

    Maybe I should have said “between midnight and 12:09 of war” — not very poetic, but probably catchy enough for a blog headline.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 2, 2009 @ 8:04 am

  12. Ardis, apologies- I wasn’t making any accusations of Ameri-centricity (if there is such a word?)by any means, sorry if it came across like that.Maybe I shouldn’t post first thing in the morning…

    Mark B: thanks for explaining what my brain was struggling to work out!

    Steve C: thanks for the clarification too, and confirmation my marbles remain intact. I wasn’t sure if I had read it long ago, heard it in Institute long ago, or heard it from my ex long ago (he served his mission in Austria). At last I can now be sure I didn’t imagine it long ago!

    Comment by Anne (U.K) — September 2, 2009 @ 11:15 am

  13. The people I know that were living in Germany during the War, do not believe the comments about apostasy during the time the missionaries were away. They say that many of them had been members of the Church for several generations. They would not have had women doing priesthood activities. If there were candles on the sacrament tables it was because that was the only light they had. Most of the German members put those stories down as “only Americans can run things correct” or “at least they think they are the only ones who can.” I tend to think the Church ran well during the War. The stories I have heard are how well the home-teaching was managed and how well the youth conferences worked. They did not need the Americans to run the Church.

    Comment by Jeff Johnson — September 2, 2009 @ 4:12 pm

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