Richard Ian Kimball’s treatise, Sports in Zion: Mormon Recreation, 1890–1940, provides an illuminating view of the history of Church recreation. With careful documentation, Kimball links a lesser-known period and aspect of Church history to the social history of the United States and its Progressive Era. Just as America turned some of its attention during this time to the social ills of industrialization and urbanization, Church leaders likewise expressed concern for youth and their movement away from religious foundations. During the early twentieth century, social reformers across the United States turned in part to recreation facilities and programs to address society’s ills. The Church also embraced recreation to combat a spiritual drift attributed to the evils of a move to the city. The commitment to recreation and sport within the Church then was deeper and different than what we see today.
Stories of recreation from early Church history are well known and sometimes mentioned from the meetinghouse pulpit. Joseph Smith’s stick pulling, Brigham Young’s homilies about the need for eight hours of recreation, as well as dancing on the plains and in the social halls of Utah are a part of popular history, even taking on the patina of folklore. Likewise, current generations have likely heard of all-church sports tournaments, early Church involvement with the Boy Scouts of America, and the development of girls’ camp properties. However, they are not likely to know of the institutional commitment to recreation during the middle years of Church history. Even professors who currently teach and prepare recreation leaders are not likely to be conversant with a Church era of intense dedication to recreation principles as a measure of social reform.