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Mormon Missionaries: The Movement and Their Message

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Mormon Missionaries: The Movement and Their Message

Robert M. Bowman Jr.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is famous for its missionary force. At any given time, over 50,000 missionaries—mostly young men around the age of twenty—are canvassing neighborhoods all over the world seeking to win converts to the LDS religion. In addition, members are taught, “Every member of the Church is a missionary. We should be missionaries even if we are not formally called and set apart” (Gospel Principles, 192). 

Bible-believing Christians certainly agree that every believer in Jesus Christ should think of himself or herself as a missionary. We also strongly believe in sending missionaries to the whole world to preach the gospel. In this study, we will put the LDS missionary movement in its historical and religious context, and then give some attention to the message that LDS missionaries are spreading throughout the world.

A. The LDS Missionary Movement in Context

The LDS Church’s missionary efforts are a clear reflection of the time period in which it arose. When Joseph Smith published the Book of Mormon and started the LDS Church in 1830, Christian missions was a well-established tradition and was enjoying a time of tremendous energy and growth. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church (which influenced Joseph Smith more than any other Christian denomination), had been a famous missionary in Georgia nearly a century earlier (1735). A flurry of organizational activity had taken place between 1790 and 1820, when some twenty different missions organizations were founded, including the Baptist Missionary Society, the New York Missionary Society (in Joseph’s home state), and the Wesleyan Missionary Society. Missionary activity of interest to Christians living in Joseph Smith’s area in the 1820s and 1830s was focused primarily on the Indians (Native Americans)—and this just happens to be a dominant theme of the Book of Mormon. 

This is just one of the many ways in which the LDS religion builds on the accomplishments of traditional Christians. Mormonism as a missionary movement is an outgrowth from the evangelical Christian missionary movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 

The history of Mormon missionaries can be divided into three periods. In the first period, from the founding of the LDS Church until the end of the Second World War (1830-1945), individual missionaries were commissioned to take the LDS gospel to predominantly Protestant and Catholic countries, especially in North America, Central America, and Western Europe. As the religion grew in numbers, the number of new missionaries commissioned each year gradually reached about a thousand. These missionaries might work in a particular area for a short period or for many years. 

By 1947, two years after the War had ended, the LDS Church had reached a million members worldwide. During this second period of missionary activity, the Church began urging all men to consider missionary service at some time during their lives. The number of missionaries began trending upward, reaching ten thousand in the early 1970s. 

The third period in LDS missions began in 1974 when Spencer W. Kimball, then president of the LDS Church, started the modern LDS missionary movement with a “revelation” telling all worthy young Mormon men to serve two years as full-time missionaries. This revelation quickly led to a reformulation of the missionary system to become what is now so well known today. Missionary service became something of a rite of passage for active male Mormons, most of whom serve two years beginning at age 19. Women are permitted (but not required) to serve up to 18 months beginning as early as age 21. These young people receive no payment for their service; generally, they and their families pay their own support. Before entering the field, the missionary will go through training at one of the seventeen Missionary Training Centers in the world, either for three weeks or, for those who need to learn a foreign language, up to thirteen weeks. Missionaries go in pairs from door to door (commonly on bicycles), wearing conservative attire (white shirts and ties for the men), and a name badge identifying the male missionary as “Elder” and the female missionary as “Sister.” 

President Kimball issued an even more famous revelation in 1978, announcing that people of color would now be welcome to hold the Mormon priesthoods and prove themselves worthy to participate in LDS temple rituals. This revelation opened up LDS missionary efforts in a serious way to the nations in Africa and Asia, enabling the LDS Church to become a truly worldwide religious movement. 

By 1980, the LDS Church had nearly 30,000 missionaries in the field. Those were actually the golden days of LDS missions. Nearly one in 150 Mormons was a missionary, and the LDS Church’s growth skyrocketed. The Church claimed 1.7 million new members in the 1970s and 3.2 million new members in the 1980s. The number of members and missionaries continued to increase in the 1990s, with the number of missionaries peaking in 2000 at over 60,000. However, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, the number of missionaries declined sharply even while the reported number of members continued to grow. Between 2004 and 2009 the number of missionaries hovered around 52,000. The ratio of missionaries to members, which was one in 150 thirty years ago, is now approaching one in 300. 

It is helpful to realize that what most of us think of as “the LDS missionary movement” is actually less than forty years old. It is also likely to undergo more changes as the world and the LDS Church both continue to change.

B. The LDS Missionary Message 

Mormon missionaries all follow the same teaching plan for proselytizing people for possible conversion to the LDS religion. This teaching plan consists of five lessons published in a manual called Preach My Gospel”: A Guide to Missionary Service.

Lesson One: The Restoration. Mormon missionary lessons begin with a lesson on the Restoration—the LDS belief that true Christianity disappeared from the earth for about seventeen centuries and was restored through Joseph Smith. Mormonism teaches that God sent Jesus to atone for the sins of all people and establish the Church. After Jesus ascended to heaven, wicked people killed off the apostles and the true Church soon ceased to exist on earth. Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ appeared to Joseph Smith in 1820 to tell him that all of the churches were wrong. Angels and other heavenly beings appeared to Joseph and God enabled him to translate the Book of Mormon and start the LDS Church. The key to this message is the Book of Mormon; the missionaries encourage prospects to read it and to ask God for a personal revelation that it is true.

Already from this first lesson it is clear that Mormon missionaries, despite the fact that they accept some biblical truth (such as Jesus atoning for sins), bring a different gospel (see Galatians 1:6-9). Although there has always been some apostasy (falling away from the faith) within Christianity, the New Testament makes it clear that the church was never going to become completely apostate (Matthew 16:18; 28:20; Ephesians 5:25-27; 1 Timothy 4:1; Jude 3). Furthermore, the LDS Church’s claims to be the true restored church do not withstand scrutiny historically or biblically. Christians should pray for wisdom and discernment when reading the Book of Mormon (or anything else), but there is no biblical basis for asking God to provide a spiritual revelation that a book of scripture is true. Rather, we should search the Scriptures to determine if the claimed new revelations agree with what God has already revealed (Acts 17:11). 

It is also clear from the fact that the first lesson emphasizes the LDS doctrines of apostasy and restoration that the missionaries’ primary target audience is Christians. Historically, this has always been the case. Most of the people who convert to the LDS religion convert from the Catholic Church or from one of the Protestant churches. The core message of the LDS Church is that Christians should accept the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, and the LDS Church as the vehicles of the Restoration and the true, “full” gospel. This doesn’t mean that Mormons neglect or avoid evangelizing people of other religions, but their missionary efforts even in nations outside North America concentrate on areas where Christianity has already taken root.

Lesson Two: The Plan of Salvation. The second lesson presents an overview of cosmic history. We were originally spirit children of Heavenly Father, living with him in heaven before coming to earth. Adam and Eve did not sin, but nobly chose to eat of the forbidden fruit so they could become mortal, have children, and exercise their ability to make choices. Then God sent Jesus to earth as his only literal Son in the flesh to die and rise immortal from the grave so that all people could also become immortal. Depending on how we respond to this message and how worthy we prove ourselves in this life, we will live forever in one of three kingdoms of glory. In the highest of these, the celestial kingdom, we will have the potential to become like God.

Although it retains the truth that Jesus died on the cross and rose from the grave, almost everything else about the LDS “plan of salvation” is unbiblical. The Bible explicitly says that Adam and Eve sinned when they ate the forbidden fruit (Romans 5:14-19). Jesus is the only human being who previously had existed in heaven (John 3:31; 16:28). He is not God’s literal son in the flesh because God the Father is infinite Spirit, not an exalted Man (Numbers 23:19; John 4:20-24). Rather, Jesus is the Father’s unique, eternal Son and as such is himself God (John 1:1, 14-18; 20:28). Depending on whether people receive God’s gift of salvation in Christ alone (John 14:6; Acts 4:12; Ephesians 2:8-10), they will receive either eternal life in the new heavens and new earth or eternal punishment in hell (Matthew 25:46; Rev. 20-22).

Lesson Three: The Gospel of Jesus Christ. Despite the title of this lesson, its focus is really on becoming members of the LDS Church. Missionaries teach that converts need to accept the LDS view of Christ, repent (stop committing known sins), be baptized into the LDS Church, and participate in its meetings and other obligations.

By contrast, evangelical missionaries focus on leading people to faith in Christ and do not present their church organization as necessary to the convert’s salvation. “For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord” (2 Corinthians 4:5).

Lesson Four: The Commandments. One might think that this lesson focused on the Ten Commandments; they are included, but “the commandments” to which the lesson refers are all of the LDS Church’s requirements. These include studying the LDS scriptures, “following the prophet” (accepting the current LDS Church President’s teaching), abstaining from alcohol, tobacco, tea, and coffee (a commitment that is prerequisite for baptism), and tithing to the LDS Church.

That a convert must accept the LDS President’s authority and agree to tithe to the LDS Church before being baptized confirms that baptism means something different in Mormonism than it does in evangelical Christianity, where it is simply a sign of commitment to Christ, not to a particular organization (Acts 2:37-41; 16:31-33; 1 Corinthians 1:13-17). Evangelical Christians are expected to live according to the Bible’s teachings, and especially to love one another (Matthew 7:12; 22:36-40; Romans 13:8-10), not to submit to manmade religious rules (Colossians 2:16-23).

Lesson Five: Laws and Ordinances. After converts are baptized, missionaries teach them about specific religious obligations and expectations within the LDS Church. Mormon males twelve and up receive the Aaronic priesthood, authorizing them to assist in performing baptisms and “the sacrament” (LDS Communion). As they get older, males receive the Melchizedek priesthood, qualifying them for church offices. Women and younger children are to participate in “auxiliary organizations,” notably the women’s Relief Society. LDS couples should pursue “eternal marriage” in the temple, and all worthy members should participate in temple ceremonies, including baptisms for the dead.

As discussed earlier in the articles responding to chapter 13 and chapter 14 of Gospel Principles, the LDS priesthoods radically depart from what the New Testament says about priesthood (notably in Hebrews 7), and from a New Testament perspective the temple is an outmoded institution (Hebrews 8).

In conclusion, while one may admire the dedication and zeal of Mormon missionaries, the message that they carry is, to use Paul’s words, another gospel (Galatians 1:6-9; 2 Corinthians 11:4). Their primary goal is to convert people from Christian backgrounds to their own version of Christianity. They have the right to do so, but it is important that Christian churches know what the LDS Church teaches and that its intention is to convert people of all Christian churches, as well as of other faiths, to their religion.


For Further Study 

Mormon Doctrine. Our collection of articles relating to the doctrinal differences between the LDS Church and evangelical, Bible-based Christianity.

Salvation God’s Way. Resources on the evangelical message of salvation by grace alone through faith in Christ alone.