For the first hundred years of its missionary existence, the Church’s proselyting efforts were overwhelmingly focused on rural areas rather than on cities. “Country districts” were generally seen as less hostile to missionaries, and it was much easier for elders traveling without purse or scrip to find hospitality with families who were used to offering shelter to travelers than in cities where there were already large numbers of local charity seekers.
Cities became increasing areas of proselyting activity after the turn of the 20th century, in part because of an evolving understanding of “gathering” as a religious principle – where the earlier expectation was that converts would emigrate to Utah, the expectation later grew that most converts would remain in their old homes and help to establish Zion everywhere. City Saints found this an easier concept that rural Saints – in cities, there could be enough Latter-day Saints to gather for Sunday worship, while in rural areas a family might remain for years the only Latter-day Saints in the county, cut off from the communal aspects of Mormon life.
By the 1930s, there were some 8,000 isolated members in the Southern States Mission alone, living outside of branch organizations, visited by missionaries once or twice every year or two. In the words of one mission leader, “They represent the seeds of the Gospel sown at a great expense by the early missionaries. Were these seeds to be left with but an occasional visit from a like sower, or were they meant to be tended carefully and prepared for the harvest?”
In 1938, a new attempt to strengthen these isolated families – those in the United States, at least – was born, the Home Sunday Service or Home Sunday School. Members had been encouraged for years to gather as families for short devotional services on Sunday mornings, but in 1938 the Church first provided formal materials to help those home gatherings. The first manual of family-style lessons was prepared and distributed. Each lesson contained questions on tear-out sheets, which the family was supposed to answer in writing and mail to mission headquarters, where missionaries would give each family personalized feedback.
The manual suggested an order of procedure:
4. Sacrament (if Priesthood is present)
5. Lesson work
a. Short review of last week’s lesson
b. Announcement of today’s topic
c. Reading of references
d. Discussion of subject matter
e. Answers to questions
6. Distribute next week’s lesson material
It might all sound very basic to us, and you might think such an outline was unnecessary – but remember that most of these isolated members had never attended regular LDS services, and had had no opportunity to observe how things were done or to develop their own skills. This manual was a first step in leadership training for the branches that would come later.
Members were reminded that as they gathered in their families to hold these services, they were joining tens of thousands of other Latter-day Saints who were gathering in somewhat larger groups. Families were encouraged to participate in the same Church-wide observances of holidays and other special occasions, and to feel that they were part of something much larger than their “cottage services.”
The manual suggested that on fast days, families suspend regular class work and hold a special fast day service, with a thought to be given by one member to set the tone for bearing testimonies.
Suggested Topics for Fast Day Services
Why do I believe (know, or testify):
1. That the Father and the Son appeared to Joseph Smith.
2. That the plan of salvation has been restored.
3. That this is the only true and living Church of God.
4. That this Church is divinely led.
5. That all commandments are given for our welfare.
6. That we will be blessed if we pay a full tithing.
7. That we should keep the Word of Wisdom.
8. That family prayers bring blessings to the home.
9. That spiritual strength comes from partaking of the Sacrament.
10. That our work in the temple adds to the salvation of ourselves and our dead.
11. That our marriages should be performed in the temple of the Lord.
12. That the Lord will bless this land if we keep His commandments.
To round out this post, and to demonstrate the Church’s commitment to encouraging families to make a success of their Home Sunday Schools, below are the illustrations from that first (1938) year’s manual. These images were nicer and more expensive to produce than those offered to Sunday Schools in the organized stakes, and yet the Church provided them to each isolated family who wanted to teach and make lessons attractive to their children.
And, by the way, this first manual on “Leaders of the Scriptures” had two authors: Marion G. Merkley (a professional educator in the Salt Lake City school system), and somebody named Gordon B. Hinckley.