HISTORY OF REUNIONS
By Ardyce Nordeen
Reunions are a very special and very unique part of our Church life, and their existence is only in those church groups that formed in the Restoration Movement from 1860 on. In other words, they are only a part of the RLDS Church experience.
In the early Reorganization, there were two conferences each year, a spring conference and a fall conference.
Over time, the Church leadership, under Joseph Smith III, decided that preparing for and conducting two conferences each year was consuming all their energies and so the fall conference was dropped. This was disappointing to many of the Saints, not so much that they missed the business meetings, but they missed the chance to gather for fellowship and worship. Thus, the idea for “Reunion Meetings” was born.
In 1883, Charles Derry and John Hawley presented a resolution to the General Conference that would provide for the holding of reunions:
The committee to whom was committed the papers in respect to reunion meetings by the church, beg leave to report that they respectfully recommend that this conference advise that mission and district authorities arrange for such reunions for religious services, when and where it may be by them deemed best. (Church History, Vol. 2)
That conference adopted this proposal and thus began the practice of holding reunions, which has been our unique tradition now for more than 130 years. Even in times of separation and other confusion, we have continued to meet in reunions on a regular basis.
The first reunion of the Church was held in Leland’s Grove, Shelby County, Iowa in September of 1883 for a full week. Many attended, including members of the Twelve and Seventy, and a number of high priests. Joseph Smith III was also present. The assembly was so satisfied that they immediately adopted a resolution that more of such meetings be planned and carried out.
We, the Saints assembled in this reunion meeting, have realized spiritual blessings and favor from God, and have enjoyed the communion and fellowship of each other since we assembled together, and believing as we do that great good will accrue to the Church generally as well as to us individually, in the continuation of these meetings, resolve that we are in favor of holding a reunion meeting annually… (Church History, Vol.2)
A reunion the following year in Garner’s Grove, Harrison County, Iowa, had more than three thousand Saints in attendance! But two years later, this same area saw a reunion of more than five thousand! Forty-two people were baptized at this reunion in 1886. The report of the Garner’s Grove Reunion in 1889 included the fact that 55 people were baptized, most of them adults, and that the Holy Spirit blessed the meetings there.
Between 1885 and 1890, there were also reunions held at Galland’s Grove, Iowa; at Harlan, Iowa; Laguna, California; Wheeler’s Grove, Iowa; Sacramento, California; Tulare, California; Jonesport, Maine; Logan, Iowa; and at Birmingham and Leeds, in England. All the reports that remain from these experiences are positive and encouraging. Gifts of the Spirit, healings, and the joy of close fellowship were present at all. This unique and special tradition in our movement was firmly entrenched!
The first reunions were often held in the months of September and October, which was the time the second conference each year had been held. By 1891, there were several held in the summer months also. Thousands attended these early reunions, both members of the Church and nonmembers who were curious, or actively seeking truth. As a result of excellent preaching, and the spiritual gifts manifest, many were baptized during these times.
At first, members of the Presidency or Twelve presided over the reunions. But as time went on, and the size and number of reunions grew, it became important for local districts to handle the administrative aspects of each reunion. With this trend, the reunions tended to be absorbed more and more fully into the planned activities of each district. This was the case in general by the turn of the Twentieth Century. In 1900, there were at least 12 reunions held from New England to California, and some in Wales and England. By 1902, that number had increased to twenty.
The schedules of the earliest reunions usually included only preaching and prayer services. As time went on, class activities and presentations were added, especially those of a missionary nature, since the gatherings often attracted visitors. By 1907, reunions were becoming a major summer activity for the Church. In that year, there were thirty-six reunions held between June and September. By this time, each reunion included scheduling for departmental activities, especially as general church officers could be on hand to discuss Religio lessons, hymn and choir lessons, etc. Slowly a trend away from strictly adult-centered schedules gave way to a family-centered week, with classes, activities, and even special prayer services for children.
In 1912, the first reunion of the season was held in Australia in April, followed by forty-three more in the domestic fields of the United States and Canada. The larger districts were beginning to acquire their own reunion grounds, but there were not yet permanent facilities on those grounds. People still brought or rented tents for housing and cooked their own food. There were also, often, animals, horses, etc., that required pasturing.
The gatherings at reunions came to be an important aspect of Church life. Apostle J.F. Curtis said, “This gathering together at reunions tends to a higher spiritual condition, and should be encouraged, as the results for good are plain to be seen.” (Church History, Vol. 6)
By the 1920’s, many districts and stakes had purchased reunion grounds and were steadily making permanent improvements to them. Visiting general church officers found reunions to be among their best opportunities to teach the priesthood and clarify General Church policies and procedures. Both choir and congregational music benefitted from reunion experiences and lessons, and the First Presidency made the recommendation that the reunions devote one evening to an emphasis on the importance of higher education. (Graceland College was, by this time, in existence.)
In 1922, the Joint Council appointed a committee on reunions. This was to help smaller reunion groups benefit from the experience of those who had larger gatherings or who had been in the practice for more years. This committee was replaced in 1923 by a committee consisting of a member of the First Presidency, a member of the Twelve, and one representing the Church departments. They were given the task of working on reunion preparation as a year-round task. The reports to the Heraldo from these years show that reunions continued to be blessed with rich outpourings of spiritual gifts and prophecies.
In the 1920’s, centralized meal times became possible as groups constructed dining halls on their grounds. Planning for the food began months ahead of the reunion season. Many women’s groups sponsored “canning bees” to put up food for the coming reunions. At the same time, men would hold “work days” to get the grounds ready by cleaning and repairing facilities. All of these activities had a two-fold purpose: to reduce the costs associated with running a reunion and to promote fellowship and advanced spiritual preparation.
World conditions in the 1930’s and early 1940’s (the Great Depression and World War II) put a strain on some reunion activities and planning, but attendance continued to be surprisingly high, both in the United States and abroad. The dominant missionary tone of the earlier reunions had given way in large measure to pastoral ministries, although there were still many reunion baptisms, some even in war-torn England.
The members of the presiding quorums of the Church carried heavy burdens of responsibility during these years. Some of them taught or preached at as many as six reunions in a single season. Yet, they reported that each gathering was richly blessed. President McDowell said, “We believe that the spirit of this reunion can be taken as an index of the spirit of the Saints throughout the Church…There was present a spirit of hope, assurance of final victory, a conviction that…the purposes of God as expressed to the Church [shall] be realized.” (Church History, Vol 8)
The 1950’s and 60’s were a turbulent time within the Reorganized Church, but reunions continued to grow in popularity and in number. Most domestic field districts were able to purchase campgrounds during this time. Sometimes two or more districts would purchase land together, allowing for more Saints to attend reunions and youth camps.
The reunion experience was, for a time, sheltered from Church politics, but gradually, those issues pressed down even there. Those who wished to promote new doctrine and policies found the groups gathering each summer a captive audience and often tried to dominate a reunion’s focus. Sometimes it was successful; in others it was not. After a few years, those who were fundamentally like-minded tended to register only for those reunions that they felt would not expose them to unwanted changes. This also worked for a time, but eventually there came the time of breaking away.
As independent branches formed, the desire to rekindle the spirit of fellowship, worship, and outreach that had been such a large part of the reunion experiences through the years reformed. Very quickly, ways to gather in the summer for reunions and camps were found, and the tradition continued.
Today, the Remnant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints hosts four or five reunions each summer. There, the blessings of gathering apart from the world are gained as Saints meet and fellowship together. It is a wonderful time to recharge spiritual “batteries” and renew commitments. If you haven’t attended a reunion in a while, look ahead to the coming summer and make that a priority in your planning. You will be blessed and strengthened just as Brother Curtis said so many years ago, “…the results for good are plain to be seen.”