BYU professor Brandon Plewe explores Utah’s historic meetinghouses and the evolution of Church organization.
Quick, can you name the oldest operating church meetinghouse in Utah?
According to BYU geography professor Brandon Plewe, it’s the Bountiful Tabernacle. Completed and dedicated in 1863, the majestic building stands as a testament to the fortitude of early Pioneer settlers who tamed the Utah desert after arriving in 1847.
But if you guessed the historic Rock Church in Farmington, you were close. That building was dedicated one year later, in 1864, and was home to the church’s first Primary meeting a few years later in 1878.
The Bountiful Tabernacle and the Farmington Rock Chapel are two of the hundreds of historic meetinghouses dotting the Beehive State, and Plewe is determined to map as many as possible as part of his ongoing efforts to create an interactive database of places that are significant to the history of the church.
To date, Plewe and his team of students have documented every ward and branch of the church between 1830 and 1930 – over 7,000 in total. You can explore Plewe’s interactive map at and maybe even learn the history of your ward and stake by visiting MormonPlaces.byu.edu.
It’s a project that stemmed from Plewe's award-winning Mapping Mormonism: An Atlas of Latter-day Saint History, and it's a resource that he hopes will be useful to family historians and others who are interested in understanding the experiences of their pioneer ancestors.
“When you see something on a map it makes you think about it differently,” said Plewe. “And from these maps we start to see overall patterns and that adds to the context of our knowledge of history, and it can give you a sense of what an ancestor’s experiences would have been like during this time.”
As part of his work, Plewe has become deeply familiar with the evolution of the wards and stakes across the state and plans to publish his research in a forthcoming publication.
The research tells the comprehensive backstory of how wards and stakes were organized and administered in the early days of the church in Utah. While some early church areas had operating wards that would be familiar to us today, other areas did not.
As new pioneer settlements sprung up beyond Salt Lake City in the early 1850s, congregational organizations soon followed, though the structure of such organizations often varied. For instance, settlements just north and south of the valley like North Canyon (Bountiful) and Little Cottonwood operated like modern-day wards where Bishops offered spiritual and temporal guidance. The 19 wards within Salt Lake City initially looked very little like modern wards since Sunday meetings on Temple Square were attended by members city-wide and bishops were concerned almost exclusively with the temporal needs of their members.
In other areas, however, the church organization structure looked quite different. During the 1850s, many settlements, including Springville, Spanish Fork, Payson, and Brigham City, were led by both a president and a bishop. Some valleys, such as Tooele, Morgan, and Heber, did not have stakes but were led by “presiding bishops” with regional stewardship over several settlements. Others, such as Cache Stake, Box Elder Stake, and Sanpete Stake, were led by resident apostles rather than stake presidents. In 1863, the 14 wards of Weber County were demoted to “districts” of a single massive Weber County Ward with a single bishop.
The terminology of church callings was also evolving. Outside of Salt Lake City, terms like “ward” were used infrequently in the early to mid-1850s when referencing local congregations. Rather, pioneers simply equated the settlement area and the congregation under one bishop. For instance, Aaron Johnson was referred to as “the bishop of Springville.”
Before his death in 1877, Brigham Young and other church leaders canvassed the Utah territory organizing stakes and their wards and branches in a similar fashion to what we have today. And while much of the maturation of church organization in Utah wasn’t linear, Plewe says he’s impressed by the dedication of early pioneers to establish the church and bring order to the burgeoning frontier.
“A lot of burden was placed on early bishops who often served for decades,” said Plewe. “So much was expected of them because wards were often much larger than is typical today, and the practice of members holding callings in local wards hadn’t been introduced until the 20th century. I really admire these men who gave their lives to their calling.”