About the Collection

Mormon Missionary Work: A Brief History and Introduction

Mormon Missionary Work: The Religious Context 1

Missionary work has been a central concern of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly called Mormons or Latter-day Saints) since their beginnings in 1830. The visions of Joseph Smith proclaimed the opening of a new dispensation in which the gospel of Jesus Christ would go forth to all nations. In their study of the Bible, particularly the New Testament, Latter-day Saint leaders identified with early Christian missionaries who were commissioned by the Master to “go ye therefore, and teach all nations” (Matthew 28:19).

Latter-day Saint scriptures emphasized and reinforced this missionary outlook. Many passages in the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants2 described the world as a “field … white already to harvest” (D&C 4:4; 6:3; 11:3; 12:3; 31:4; etc.), and the faithful were assured that no joy would be greater than that which came as a result of successful missionary work. They understood that once they heard the “good news,” they had an obligation to inform their neighbors (see D&C 88:81). These same scriptures told the stories and described the qualities of good missionaries (see Alma 17—26, 29; D&C 4).

Early in the history of the church, missionaries were commanded to assemble “the elect” from throughout the world (D&C 29:7—8; compare D&C 110:11). Their work centered on the concept of the “gathering,” a two-phase process—the spiritual gathering and the physical gathering.

First, missionaries were to preach the restored gospel of Jesus Christ to the honest in heart and then to administer the saving priesthood ordinances (beginning with baptism by immersion and the laying on of hands to receive the gift of the Holy Ghost) to those who accepted their message. Second, converts were to gather physically with other faithful members to assist in building Zion, a covenant community of righteous Saints.3

Immigration to America or to Nauvoo or the Great Basin followed conversion throughout the nineteenth century, and this gathering to a central place gave the Mormon movement great economic, political, and religious power wherever the Latter-day Saints settled. In fact, the process was viewed as a critical part of preparing the earth for the second coming of Jesus Christ. Rejecting old ways and purposefully acting on new knowledge was a significant rite of passage for the new convert. Millennial expectations thus fueled a missionary zeal and outreach that remains unabated to our own day. 4

Besides the obvious spiritual benefits of this kind of work, there were also more practical effects. Historically, missionary work served to revitalize church membership at critical periods of stress and strain. New converts also brought much-needed skills and talents during the hectic western pioneering period of the church’s history. The history and development of the various missions of the church were often the testing ground for church leaders as well as for official programs and publications. The mission experience was an important instrument of socialization and testimony building for those who accepted the call to serve.

Problems of government and administration that arose in the various mission fields very early required church leaders to deal more comprehensively with matters of organization, licensing, discipline, publication, immigration, and financial management. Thus the study of missions and missionary work is an essential area for students of Latter-day Saint history, or for students of the broader topic of missiology, or the scholarly study of mission history in its broadest sense. 5

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints remains a strong missionary organization; as of January 2006 over 52,000 full-time missionaries were assigned to one of 341 missions in 157 countries and territories worldwide. Although the majority of missionaries today are nineteen to twenty-three years old and serve proselyting missions, many, especially self-supporting retired couples and women, also are serving humanitarian, health, building, temple, family history, or as religious teachers for youth in the LDS Church. Each missionary generally serves from one to two years, but missionary service is a task accepted throughout the lifetime of active members.

In addition, thousands of members of the LDS Church are currently serving church-service missions that range from family history projects to literacy education and public communications. Whether the work of teaching grows out of a formal mission call, or from a more informal setting in one’s own neighborhood, missionary work remains a central concern for the Mormon faithful.

The Latter-day Saint missionary system has been voluntary from the beginning. To study it is to study the history of the church itself, moving as it did from a few committed families in April 1830 to an international membership today of over 12 million. A full discussion of the missionary system would require a look at a variety of topics ranging from preparing to serve; receiving the formal missionary call (including preparing for and receiving the sacred temple ordinances); the conversion process in which the nonmember is converted (including such sociological topics as recruitment, acculturation, and socialization); the mission experience itself (including such topics as testimony, morale, the disciplined life of the missionary, missionary companionships, the mission rules, the quest for orthodoxy in thought, behavior, and literature); the mission experience as a rite of passage into the larger Mormon world; and religious disaffection or apostasy. Until recently these topics have been subsumed into the historical studies of the various missions; but such topics require a closer focus on the missionary as well as on the convert from the larger view of missionary history.

Mormon Missions: A Brief History

Church membership grew from six original members in April 1830 to 268,331 in 1900, by which time Latter-day Saint missionaries had begun to preach in nearly all the countries of the world. The majority of the missionaries who served in the nineteenth century were older by today’s standards and were almost always males who commonly left wives and families behind while serving wherever they were called. The calling might be issued for proselyting, colonizing, building, or agriculture in the nineteenth century. From 1830 to the present, full-time missionaries have been called to serve. The one exception was the year 1858 when no missionaries were called due to the Utah War.

In 1844, the year Joseph Smith was killed in Carthage Jail, 586 individuals were called to serve.6 The Church was not to see those missionary numbers again until 1895 when 746 missionaries were serving. Even during the expulsion from Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1846, there were 32 missionaries called and during the first year of migration to the Great Basin in 1847, 40 missionaries were serving.7

The first “foreign” mission attempted was into Ontario, Canada. From 1832 on, individuals or groups of missionaries, hazarded trips there, and notwithstanding the few converts that were made in these early years, those who were baptized became instrumental in the opening of the British Mission, the next foreign mission attempted by the church. From its small beginnings in 1837, the British Mission became the most successful foreign mission of the church in the nineteenth century. From 1840 to about 1900 it is estimated that over 50,000 converts immigrated to the United States from Britain.

Very early in their history, the Latter-day Saints also sent missionaries into other countries. Even before the death of Joseph Smith, elders were sent to Australia, India, South America, Germany, and Jamaica. Although they failed to go, Orson Hyde and George J. Adams were even called to Russia. Orson Hyde did visit Palestine in 1842, and other missionaries visited the Society Islands in the Pacific Ocean in 1843. Thus a substantial effort had been expended in missionary work by 1844.

From England, early missionaries made the first proselyting thrusts into Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and continental Europe and then gradually extended themselves in more organized ventures. In 1849, no doubt encouraged by the Revolutions of 1848, calls were issued for the Italian, French, and Scandinavian missions. A mission to Hawaii came in 1850, another to South America in 1851, and in 1852 missionaries were dispatched to Gibraltar, India, Burma, Siam, China, South Africa, the West Indies, British Guiana, and again to Australia.

Although few of these more extended missions were successful during the nineteenth century, the very attempt suggests the serious international outlook and millennialism of the early church. As Paul had benefited from the law and transportation routes of the Roman Empire, early Latter-day Saint missionary work followed the paths and locations of the British Empire throughout the world.8

During a period of anti-Mormon persecution and prosecution in the 1880s, foreign missionary work continued. During these years, the LDS Church was battling the affects of the 1882 Edmunds Act, and the 1887 Edmunds—Tucker Act. The Edmunds—Tucker Act dis—incorporated the LDS Church, including the Perpetual Emigration Fund, that was so instrumental in bringing foreign converts to the Great Basin. Foreign missionary work began in Mexico in 1875 but ended about 1889. Mexico was opened again in 1901 and, with Latin America, has become the most fruitful mission field in the church. In 1883 several missionaries worked in Austria and Hungary, but for many years few significant results were obtained there. In 1885 missionary work was begun in Turkey. In 1888 a mission was organized in Samoa; in 1891 the work was extended to Tonga, which was organized as a separate mission in 1916. In 1901 Japan was opened as the twentieth foreign mission, while the older missions continued to grow. 9

The stress on the gathering of new converts to an American headquarters meant sacrificing a stable base in the converts’ home country in favor of the colonizing activities in the Great Basin. By 1907 President Joseph F. Smith, the fourth president of the Latter-day Saints, following suggestions of George Q. Cannon in 1894, began counseling European members to remain in their own lands. However, despite this counsel, a significant number of converts continued to gather to America.

The church itself maintained statistics on these numbers until 1962: 103,000 from 1840 to 1910 (ca. 2,000 per year); 10,185 from 1911 to 1946 (ca. 291 per year); 6,000 from 1947 to 1953 (ca. 1,000 per year), and almost 8,000 from 1954 to 1962.10 While the general trend has been for converts to remain in their native countries, it is obvious that the American pull has been strong on new members.

World wars and the Great Depression hindered but did not stop Latter-day Saint missionary work in the twentieth century. In some cases, it was LDS American servicemen who began or strengthened missionary work in the country to which they were assigned (for example, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand). In some cases, the destruction brought by war opened countries as well as people’s hearts to the message the missionaries brought. By 1950 there were 46 missions.

By the end of the Second World War, as other Christian missionary groups were beginning to apply more systematic and bureaucratic techniques to their proselyting efforts,11 young Latter-day Saint missionaries moved to more systematically organize the missionary program of the church. The church would issue in 1953 The Systematic Program for Teaching the Gospel, the first set of missionary lessons issued by the church to be used in all missions. The tremendous missionary success of the LDS Church, since 1950, owes much to this more thoughtful and systematic missionary lesson approach, particularly its emphasis on the Book of Mormon as a proselyting tool.12 The 1961 discussions, A Uniform System for Teaching Investigators, and the 1973 discussions, ,The Uniform System for Teaching Families, are clearly based on these earlier programs. In 2004 the Church published the latest missionary approach entitled Preach My Gospel. With Preach My Gospel, the young missionaries are appropriately even more dependent on their spiritual preparation and their openness to the spiritual gifts of the Holy Ghost in their proselyting work.

The efforts to make “every member a missionary,” with active involvement in every step from referral to fellowshipping, was formalized in the 1960s by President David O. McKay.13 But this success has also raised new challenges for the church, particularly in relation to cultural conflict, translation, and Americanization. The sheer numerical growth of the church has been a significant challenge that can be only partially solved with better training and a broader use of electronic technology.

The latter part of the twentieth century, and the beginning of the twenty-first century, has witnessed a significant growth of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints throughout the world. By the beginning of 2005, there were congregations in 170 nations, territories and possessions, and church wide membership reached almost 12.3 million. The number of missions reached 338. This growth is greatly affected by convert baptisms. Of the 1,764,316 individuals baptized from 2000–2004, 76% were convert baptisms. These figures clearly demonstrate the systematic and aggressive missionary programs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In projecting its numerical growth in 1984, Rodney Stark, a non-Mormon sociologist of religion, suggested evidence of the emergence of a new world religion.14 Missionary work continues to be a central focus for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and an important instrument in the growth of the LDS Church. Yet no complete history has been produced that tells the full story of Mormon missionary work.15

It is hoped that this collection of over 67,000 pages of missionary diaries, will assist in teaching all of us something of the struggles, rewards, successes, and failures of missionaries and missionary work over the first 170 years (the 1830s through the 1960s) of the LDS Church. We trust that scholars, members of the LDS Church, family historians, cultural historians, and all interested individuals will be rewarded by the stories—stories that are told mostly by ordinary people answering a call to serve their Church and their God in sometimes extraordinary ways. To study mission history is to study LDS history.


1 Edited and used by permission of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies from David J. Whittaker “Mormon Missiology: An Introduction and Guide to the Sources,” In The Disciple as Witness: Essays on Latter-day Saint History and Doctrine in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson. (Provo: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, Brigham Young University, 2000), 459-466.

2 The standard scriptural works of the Church of Jesus Christ include the King James Version of the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price. The Book of Mormon is divided into 15 books with names such as Alma , 1 Nephi, Moroni, and the Doctrine and Covenants is divided by sections and verses, usually cited as D&C 4:4 or D&C 31:4 for example.

3 A useful introduction is Rex E. Cooper, Promises Made to the Fathers: Mormon Covenant Organization (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1990).

4 While it is beyond our concern here, a critical relationship exists between the Mormon missionary enterprise and Mormon expectations of the second coming of the Savior. Mormon millennialism generally avoided setting dates for this event, but anticipations for it fueled missionary zeal. Recent studies include Richard Lloyd Anderson, “Joseph Smith and the Millenarian Time Table,” BYU Studies 3/3—4 (1961): 55—66; and Grant Underwood, The Millenarian World of Early Mormonism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993).

5 Because the scholarly study of missiology is anchored in and is a critical reflection about the traditional Christian church’s mission history, it is not easy to apply these categories and perspectives to the study of Mormon missions. In general, based on the Latin roots of the word, missiology literally means a study of the sending forth or expansion of the church. An excellent summary and contemporary perspective is Dallin H. Oaks and Lance B. Wickman, “The Missionary Work of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” in Sharing the Book: Religious Perspectives on the Rights and Wrongs of Mission, ed. John Witte Jr. and Richard C. Martin (Mary Knoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1999), 247—75. A brief overview of the definition and history of the discipline of mission history in Protestant and Catholic traditions is Louis J. Luzbetak, The Church and Cultures: New Perspectives in Missiological Anthropology (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1988), 12—23. A useful introduction to the non-Mormon “What Do We Mean by ‘Missiology,’” is in Missiology, An Ecumenical Introduction, Texts and Contexts of Global Christianity, ed. A. Camps et al. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1995), 1—7. See also Mark A. Noll, “The Potential of Missiology for the Crisis of History,” in History and the Christian Historian, ed. Ronald A. Wells (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdman’s 1998), 106—23.

6 Many of these missionaries were serving political missions campaigning for Joseph Smith as president of the United States, while also proselyting.

7 2005 Church Almanac (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 2004): 635.

8 A useful atlas that includes visuals on missionary work and membership is Historical Atlas of Mormonism, ed. S. Kent Brown, Donald Q. Cannon, and Richard H. Jackson (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994). Until the 1950s Mormon missionaries found great success in Protestant countries, since the 1960s Catholic countries have been their greatest source for converts.

9 For a useful overview of LDS mission history see Donald Q. Cannon and Richard O. Cowan, Unto Every Nation: Gospel Light Reaches Every Nation (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2003).

10 Based on information in Richard L. Jensen and William G. Hartley, “Immigration and Emigration,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 2:676.

11 See Andrew Walls, “World Christianity, the Missionary Movement and the Ugly American,” in World Order and Religion, ed. Wade C. Roof (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1991), 147—72. Such bureaucratizing included (1) uniformity of message and delivery, “(2) goal setting and outcome measurement by objective criteria, (3) standardized and programmatic training of missionaries, (4) systematic supervision of missionary performance, and (5) cost-benefit accountability,” as outlined by Gordon Shepherd and Gary Shepherd, “Membership Growth, Church Activity, and Missionary Recruitment,” Dialogue 29/1 (1996): 36. Given this routinization, the Shepherds suggest the relevance of the military analogy for Mormon missions.

12 From 1830 to 1996, over 83,000,000 copies of the Book of Mormon were printed, with about 56,000,000 from 1982. See the chart in the Ensign (March 1998): 75. See David J. Whittaker’s forthcoming article “‘That Most Important of All Books’: A Printing History of the Book of Mormon,” Mormon Historical Studies forthcoming in volume 6 #2.

13 A good overview is in Jay E. Jensen, “Proselyting Techniques of Mormon Missionaries” (master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 1974), 56—73. See also Arlene Crawley, “The Beginnings of the Family to Family Program,” in Converted to Christ Through the Book of Mormon, ed. Eugene England (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989), 10—19.

14 See Rodney Stark, “The Rise of a New World Faith,” Review of Religious Research 26 (September 1984): 18—27. Stark’s most recent study of early Christianity uses the Mormon Church as a modern parallel; see Stark, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996). See also Stark’s essays gathered in The Rise of Mormonism, ed. Reid L. Neilson (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).

15 A good one-volume history of the LDS Church, including aspects of missionary work, is James B. Allen, and Glen M. Leonard, The Story of the Latter—day Saints, 2nd ed. Rev. and enl. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Bopok, 1992).