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Cover Story May 10th, 2007

  Untitled Document


by lyle e davis

I like Mormons.

Don’t agree with their religious beliefs, but I like them. Further, I never met a Mormon I didn’t like. Knew at least two that let me down . . . but that’s true of a lot of non-Mormons as well . . . and I still like ‘em.

I make the above statements in the interest of full disclosure and with the awareness that some of the observations in this story will likely upset some Mormon friends; for that matter, I’m likely to upset some non-Mormon friends as well. It comes with the territory of being an editor and publisher. We dig out facts, opinion, and commentaries, pull them all together to tell a story based on those facts and opinions. Sometimes readers don’t like what they read . . . sometimes they do. At least they’ve become more informed than before they read the story. One of the areas we propose to examine most closely within the Mormon religion is that of the position of missionaries. We’ll be looking at other missionaries as well.

We’ve all seen them. The two young males, generally in black slacks, white shirt and black necktie. They are pleasant, well groomed, well spoken, well trained, and certainly well disciplined. Typically, they are either walking or, at most, riding their bicycles. That’s just one element of the Mormon faith that I’ve always admired. The sense of sacrifice. That a young man, in the flower of his youth, would give up two years of his life and dedicate those years to his church, spoke volumes to me.

The sadness and loneliness that both the missionary and the family of that missionary must pose a severe strain. More than a few tears are shed by both parties when it comes time to say goodbye. During that two year term of service, contact is limited to letters and an occasional phone call. Sometimes even when a death has occurred. What does it require, this missionary position?

From the outset, Joseph Smith, revered by Mormons as a prophet and the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which is the true and official name of the Mormons, believed that his revelation was a message for the whole world. He sent out family members as his first missionaries to win converts to the faith and make the church a vital force throughout the world. Everyone who joined his church became a missionary. By the 1840s, missionaries were in North America, Europe and many of the Pacific Islands. During the first 25 years of the church, there were 71,000 converts in Great Britain alone, and approximately 17,000 of them emigrated to the early Mormon settlements in Kirtland, Ohio, and Nauvoo, Ill., and then to Utah. At the end of the 19th century, missionary work had to take a back seat to the church's survival in Utah. The World War I, the Great Depression and World War II further restricted missionary work.

"God's Army," as the mission is collectively called, shrank to under 300 missionaires worldwide. But under LDS President David O. McKay in the 1950s and 1960s, the mission grew to 13,000. In 1974, LDS President Spencer W. Kimball called for all able, worthy young men to go on a mission, and within a few years the number had doubled. By 1978, the Missionary Training Center was built in Provo, Utah, and today is one of 17 training centers around the world.

The Mormons are a strong, family oriented religion. While it is painful to not only release one of their sons (or daughters) to missionary service for two years, but to encourage it, they do it as a service to their church and their core beliefs. Many Christian churches send out missionaries to preach the gospel. However, the missionary program of the Mormons is distinctive and recognizable for the sheer number and distribution of missionaries, for the length and variety of their service, and for their appearance and their preaching of a “restored gospel.” More about the “restored gospel” a bit later on in this story.

What they do . . .Who They Are

Missionary work is voluntary. Missionaries fund their own missions — except for their transportation to and from their field of labor — and are not paid for their services. The Mormon missionary program is one of its most recognized characteristics. Mormon missionaries can be seen on the streets of hundreds of major cities in the world as well as in thousands of smaller communities. The missionary effort is based on the New Testament pattern of missionaries serving in pairs, teaching the gospel and baptizing believers in the name of Jesus Christ (see, for example, the work of Peter and John in the book of Acts). More than 50,000 missionaries are serving missions for the Mormons at any one time. Most are young people under the age of 25, serving in nearly 350 missions throughout the world.

Missionaries can be single men between the ages of 19 and 25, single women over the age of 21 or retired couples. Missionaries work with a companion of the same gender during their mission, with the exception of couples, who work with their spouse. Single men serve missions for two years and single women serve missions for 18 months. Missionaries receive their assignment from LDS headquarters and are sent only to countries where governments allow the LDS to operate. Missionaries do not request their area of assignment and do not know beforehand whether they will be required to learn a language.

Prior to going to their assigned area, missionaries spend a short period of time at one of 17 missionary training centers throughout the world. There they learn how to teach the gospel in an orderly and clear way and, if necessary, they begin to learn the language of the people they will be teaching. The largest training center is in Provo, Utah, with additional centers in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Dominican Republic, England, Guatemala, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, the Philippines, Spain and South Korea. Male missionaries are addressed with the title “Elder” and women are addressed with the title “Sister.”

A typical missionary day begins by waking at 6:30 a.m. for personal study. The day is spent proselytizing by following up on appointments, visiting homes or meeting people in the street or other public places. Missionaries end their day by 10:30 p.m. While you and I may not enjoy being proselytized by any religious adherents . . . it is part of their belief system; their mission and purpose in life is to spread the word in which they believe. You and I still have the right to say no and that admonition is generally respected by most religions. In some parts of the world, missionaries are sent only to serve humanitarian or other specialized missions. Those missionaries do not proselytize.

Contacts with family and friends during this time of service are limited to letters and occasional phone calls to family at special times. Missionaries avoid entertainment, parties or other activities common to this age-group as long as they are on their missions, so they can focus entirely on the work of serving and of teaching others the beliefs of their church. Each year, approximately 53,000 Mormon missionaries go out into the world to win as many as 250,000 converts to their faith, almost a five to one ratio. The missionary force has always been the engine that has driven the church's success. In the early years, older men were called to a mission, but now it is mostly young men and women who serve.

All Mormon men aged 19 to 26 are eligible to receive a mission call and concentrate two years of their life to what current LDS President Gordon Hinckley calls "this sacred service." Women over the age of 21 may also be called as missionaries, but they only serve 18 months. The vast majority of the missionary force -- 76 percent -- are young men.

Missionaries are expected to cover all expenses of their mission; many Mormon children start saving for their missions when they first get an allowance, at 6 or 7 years old. Many young Mormons also work after-school jobs to save for their missions. If the cost is simply too high for a missionary and his/her family to bear, however, a missionary's local ward may help to bear his/her expenses. Once accepted, missionaries are trained at the nearest Missionary Training Center. The rigorous training can last up to three months of sixteenhour days. The trainees learn six basic lesson plans designed to take the potential convert to the goal of baptism. Every aspect of their behavior and appearance is scrutinized. They are taught how to listen, to smile, to find common ground with a stranger on the street, and to answer difficult questions or deal with hecklers. The location where missionaries serve is entirely determined by the church.

The mission itself involves long work days, six days per week. A typical day involves two hours of scriptural study and eight to nine hours of going door to door"teaching and contacting" potential converts. One day a week is set aside for personal activities like laundry, letter writing or sightseeing in the host country. While on their mission, missionaries can call home only on Christmas and Mother's Day; they must be with their missionary companion 24 hours a day; they cannot come within arm's length of the opposite sex; they cannot watch television or films; and they are only allowed to listen to music and read books that are of a religious nature. At the end of their mission they will return to their communities, often to a banquet where they can discuss their experiences with family and friends.

Many veterans of the missions describe their experience as transformative, but most missionaries make very few converts. Nevertheless, their missions are considered successful because these years of service train young LDS men to be leaders in their local wards. Many young Mormons have felt tremendous pressure to serve on a mission. But in recent years, acknowledging that many young men are still experiencing difficult adolescence at age 18 or 19, the church decided to be more selective about whom is called to serve a mission. This selectivity has caused a drop in the number of missionaries, but it has probably not hurt the effectiveness of the missionary force.

When approached by a Mormon Missionary Team you will note that they stress their fundamental belief in Joseph Smith as a modern prophet and the Book of Mormon as a new testament of Jesus Christ. Mormon missionaries will also teach a potential convert about the Mormon lifestyle. When ready, potential converts will be asked to join the missionaries for a service with the local congregation. If the potential convert is ready to repent his sins and declare faith in Christ and the"Restored Gospel," then he will be baptized by immersion. If you’re curious about what it’s like to attend a Mormon service, you are welcome to attend any Sunday.

Do missionaries try to convert Christians?

Yes. Mormons view all non- Mormon Christian denominations as misdirected from the true teaching of God. Their emphasis when approaching Christians is on the"Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ" as revealed to Joseph Smith. In their eyes, Christianity has suffered from a "Great Apostasy" ever since the formation of the early Christian church, necessitating the revelation of Joseph Smith and, therefore, the need to spread his message throughout the existing Christian world.

The Other Missionaries . . .

By definition, a missionary is traditionally defined as a propagator of religion who works to convert those outside that community. The most compelling verse to many is found in the New Testament, where Jesus instructs the apostles to make disciples. (Matthew 28:19). This reference is understood by Christian missionaries as the Great Commission to engage in missionary work. Those of us who don’t want to be bothered by missionaries normally simply need to tell them we are not interested in their message and to please take us off their calling list. Normally, this request is honored.

Sometimes it is not.

We have had great difficulty in persuading missionaries from the Jehovah’s Witness sect to stop calling on us. In spite of repeated requests, and then demands, that they leave us alone, they seem to rejoice in returning again and again. We have become rather firm in our demands that they leave us alone. Most other missionaries politely respond to our request to not be prosletyzed.

You have missionaries within the Catholic Church (usually in the form of a religious order undertaking the mission) . . . Greek Orthodox . . . including the Romanian Orthodox Church, the Georgian Orthodox and Apostolic Church and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (both said to have been founded by the missionary Apostle Andrew), and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church (said to have been founded by the missionary Apostle Paul). Most Protestant Churches have missions. The Danish Government, in fact, officially included Lutheran missionaries among the colonists in many of its colonies. (Go to Minnesota sometime and count how many Lutheran Churches there are (or, as my Norwegian Grandma used to say . . . “Lootern”). The London Missionary Society was an extensive Anglican and Nonconformist missionary society formed in England in 1795 with missions in the islands of the South Pacific and Africa. It now forms part of the Council for World Mission. The Anglican Church Missionary Society was also founded in England in 1799, and continues its work today.

Probably the chief competitor to the Mormon Missionary zeal is the Evangelical Church missions. With a dramatic increase in efforts since the 1900s, but a strong push since the The International Congress on World Evangelization in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1974, evangelical groups have focused efforts on sending missionaries to every ethnic group in the world. While this effort has not been completed, increased attention has brought larger numbers of people distributing Bibles, Jesus videos, and establishing evangelical churches in more remote, less Christianized areas.

As mentioned earlier, one of the more persistent missionary groups is that of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Jehovah's Witnesses are known for their missionary activities, and their persistence. Typically, all adult Witnesses are expected to spend time every week "witnessing" in their area. Depending on the civil law in the respective country, this may take the form of proselytizing door to door, distribution of magazines and other literature such as The Watchtower and Awake! or responding to the questions of passersby.

Lesser known missionary groups come from the Muslim faith where their calling is known as Dawah. Dawah means to "invite" (in Arabic) to Islam, the second largest religion next to Christianity. From the 7th century, it spread rapidly from the Arabian Peninsula with explorers, traders and caravans after the death of the prophet Muhammad. Since the 20th century, funding by Muslim governments was used to open Islamic schools and mosques. Generous donations, especially from Gulf States, has enabled Islam to make significant advances, especially in Africa.

Controversy Within Missionary Work . . .

It will perhaps come as no surprise that one of the most heated attacks on Christian missionaries comes from an organization known as thetruereligion.org. They say:

Christian missionaries have a history of deception and distortion that spans centuries. In days gone by, their efforts directly supported the aims of imperialist powers bent on conquering lands and destroying the way of life of any indigenous people. Today, missionaries are more subtle, but their goal is still the same: To trick, buy, or otherwise win converts - by any means necessary. God-Willing, their devious methodologies and pseudo-scholarship will be thoroughly exposed and refuted in this section. The works of Orientalists, frequently recycled by missionaries for their own nefarious purposes, will also be dealt with here.

We focus on Christian missionaries not only because of the recent intensification of their attacks against Muslims across the globe (especially during the 'Millennial' period) but also because their works are used by various other anti- Islamic elements as source material with which to attack Islam.

To be sure, there are other critics of the missionary work. The Burning Cross is a polemical site that documents a different story about missionaries historically, especially Christian missionaries.“The Christian missionary mindset is generally depicted as that of simple religious folk with a pure desire to peacefully spread their gospel and message of love. In reality, their methods of propagation are often anything but peaceful and usually leave behind a native population stripped of their culture and often decimated ...

In the words of one resident of Thailand, "They [Christian missionaries] seemed that they did not show any interest for our culture. Why? They are just eager to build big churches in every village. It seems that they are having two faces; under the title of help they suppress us. To the world, they gained their reputations as benefactors of disappearing tribes. They built their reputations on us for many years. The way they behaved with us seemed as if we did not know about god before they arrived here. Why do missionaries think they are the only ones who can perceive God?"

In fact, most of the civilizations which were overrun by zealous Christians in their conversion fervor, were highly evolved in their moral standards, with complex social structures, high standards of cleanliness and hygiene, decorative art and evolved sciences, and content with their own religion. The arrival of Christianity actually caused these civilizations to move backwards. In this regard we need only look to Europe, for the Dark Ages of Europe is a time when the Church was in control. The Age of Enlightenment (Renaissance) began when the common people were freed from the tyranny of the Christian church....

Christians have always portrayed non- Christian civilizations as backwards, underdeveloped, superstitious, and barbaric. What really underlies all of their criticism is that these cultures do not accept Jesus, the Bible and their western way of life. This is what, in the Christians’ opinion, deems these cultures as needing their help, when in fact their fervor to destroy any theistic conception other than Christianity or any temple other than a church shows that they are really the ones who are showing the qualities of barbarians.

Today, many are uninformed and believe that mission excesses only took place in prior times and today's preaching works are a 'good thing.' But as long as the basic premises and theology that underly all the abuses that took place in the past are not corrected, the result of mission activities will remain the same: Genocide and destruction of all that lies in its way, replacing it with the 'superior religion and culture' that most missionaries believe they are delivering.”

Another organization . . . christianaggression.org, an Indian polemical site explains:

“You are probably wondering what is the aggression caused by Christians in India. You may wonder how can a minority religion that is only 3% of the population cause aggression in a nation of over 1,000,000,000 people. In the press, the aggresion and "persecution" of Christians is often publicized. However, it is never publicized how Christian Fundamentalists often incite this cycle of violence and aggression -Christians believe that they have been commanded by Christ to go and "save" (convert) the people of this world. This is also supposed to give them special merit when it comes to the day of final judgment. While there are many Christians who today do not believe in this exclusivity, there are still a large number of misguided Christians who still believe in the exclusivity of Christianity and the concept of saving souls. It is this misguided belief that breeds a hatred and intolerance for other religions, and from this hatred, these Christian Fundamentalists begin their aggression to convert. And often they will go to any means to convert, even if it means violence. This website seeks to educate the world about the atrocities that conversions bring and to bring this aggressive nature of Christianity to an end.

In India tensions have boiled over into violence. The governments of the affected states maintain that most conversions undertaken by zealous evangelicals occur due to force, inducement or fraud. In the Indian state of Tripura, the government has announced financial and weaponssmuggling connections between Baptist missionaries and Christian terrorist groups like the Nagaland Rebels and the National Liberation Front of Tripura. Hindus have claimed that these organizations persecute and slaughter Hindus by the thousands.”

Aid and Evangelism

Another source of conflict regarding missionaries in the third world is the charge that the aid that comes in response to various world disasters comes with a condition: that assistance requires conversion. While there is a general agreement among most major aid organizations not to mix aid with proselytizing, others see disasters as a means to spread the word.

Innovative Minds, a Muslim software company "specialising in the application of internet and multimedia technology for promoting a better understanding of Islam in the west" has written a report Missionaries Preying on Tsunami Survivors about just such an occurrence, the tidal wave (tsunami) that devastated parts of Asia on December 26, 2004.

"This (disaster) is one of the greatest opportunities God has given us to share his love with people," said K.P. Yohannan, president of the Texas-based Gospel for Asia. In an interview, Yohannan said his 14,500 "native missionaries" in India, Sri Lanka and the Andaman Islands are giving survivors Bibles and booklets about "how to find hope in this time through the word of God."

In Krabi, Thailand, a Southern Baptist church had been "praying for a way to make inroads" with a particular ethnic group of fishermen, according to Southern Baptist relief coordinator Pat Julian. Then came the tsunami, "a phenomenal opportunity" to provide ministry and care, Julian told the Baptist Press news service ...

Not all evangelicals agree with these tactics. "It's not appropriate in a crisis like this to take advantage of people who are hurting and suffering," said the Rev. Franklin Graham, head of Samaritan's Purse and son of evangelist Billy Graham." The Christian Science Monitor echoes these concerns in Disaster Aid Furthers Fears of Proselytizing, “I think evangelists do this out of the best intentions, but there is a responsibility to try to understand other faith groups and their culture,” says Vince Isner, director of FaithfulAmerica.org, a program of the National Council of Churches USA"

The Bush administration has in fact recently made it easier for U.S. faith based groups and missionary societies to tie aid and church together. For decades, US policy has sought to avoid intermingling government programs and religious proselytizing. The aim is both to abide by the Constitution's prohibition against a state religion and to ensure that aid recipients don't forgo assistance because they don't share the religion of the provider ... but many of those restrictions were removed by Bush in a little-noticed series of executive orders -- a policy change that cleared the way for religious groups to obtain hundreds of millions of dollars in additional government funding. It also helped change the message American aid workers bring to many corners of the world, from emphasizing religious neutrality to touting the healing powers of the Christian God. Bush brings faith to foreign aid.

Taking another look at our original subject, the Mormon Missionaries, some of what the missionaries teach includes the Mormon lifestyle. They teach, for example, that like other Christians, Mormons celebrate Christmas and Easter as their two most important religious holidays. The Latter-day Saints also observe Pioneer Day on July 24, marking the date the first Mormon pioneers arrived in Utah's Salt Lake Valley in 1847. It is around the time of this holiday that the church presents its elaborate history pageant at the Hill Cumorah in Palmyra, N.Y., where Joseph Smith is said to have found the golden plates.

Mormons also observe the Sabbath each week. On Sundays, they attend a sacrament meeting at their chapel, which includes readings, hymns, prayers, communion
and testimonies from a few speakers from the congregation. This service is preceded and/or followed by meetings of the Sunday school, the Women's Relief Society, the men of the priesthood, and other church groups; the average Mormon spends roughly three hours at their chapel on Sundays. The rest of the Sabbath is observed by spending a quiet day at home, visiting friends or family, or performing charitable works.

The missionaries also teach that Latter-day Saints believe that the body is a gift from God to be cared for and respected, not to be polluted or abused. In their daily lives, Saints follow a set of health guidelines Joseph Smith claims to have received from God in 1833 called the Word of Wisdom. As interpreted today, this code states that Mormons should abstain from coffee and tea, alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs. Over time there has been dispute and changing mores within the church regarding exactly what the Word of Wisdom disallows. For example, the original document warned against drinking any hot beverages, but over time this has come to be interpreted as only hot beverages containing caffeine. Some debate remains over whether cold caf feinated beverages like colas should also be avoided; the church's official policy is to leave it up to individuals to decide. Mormons are advised not to get tattoos and to limit body piercings to a single pair of plain earrings for women. They also follow a general dress code that teaches that modest dress not only shows respect for one's own body and for God, but also has a positive effect on spirituality and behavior.

Why is family life so central to Latter-day Saints? Why are they interested in genealogy?

Mormons believe that the family is an eternal unit and central to God's plan. In fact, eternal progression toward Godhood is limited to those who marry for time and eternity (celestial marriage) in a ceremony conducted by a properly ordained member of the LDS priesthood in a Mormon temple. Church President Hinckley has also stressed the importance of the family during mortal life, saying, "If you want to reform a nation, you begin with families, with parents who teach their children principles and values that are positive and affirmative and will lead them to worthwhile endeavors. That is the basic failure that has taken place in America. And we are making a tremendous effort to bring about greater solidarity in families. Parents have no greater responsibility in this world than the bringing up of their children in the right way, and they will have no greater satisfaction as the years pass than to see those children grow in integrity and honesty and make something of their lives, adding to society because they are a part of it."

To strengthen families, many Mormons observe "family home evening." This is one night a week -- generally Monday -- that a family spends together praying, learning about scripture, sharing things from their lives, and playing games or engaging in other fun at-home activities. The Mormon interest in genealogy is closely linked to their doctrine of baptism for the dead and their belief that the family unit will continue to exist beyond mortal life. Mormons trace their family trees to find the names of ancestors who died without learning about the restored Mormon Gospel so that these relatives from past generations can be baptized by proxy in the temple. Once baptized, if the ancestor's spirit has accepted the Gospel, they will be able to be together with the rest of their baptized Mormon family in the celestial kingdom. For the Saints, genealogy is a way to save more souls and strengthen the eternal family unit.

Discipline within the church . . .

Disciplinary councils are called for a number of serious violations. Among others, "disciplinary councils must be held in cases of murder, incest or apostasy." Apostasy is defined by the church's General Handbook of Instructions as teaching or following incorrect doctrines or "repeatedly act[ing] in clear, open and deliberate public opposition to the church or its leaders." Excommunication is the most severe punishment that a church disciplinary council can hand down against a member.

Disfellowshipment is a punishment just short of excommunication in which a member remains part of the church but may not enter the temple, hold leadership roles, receive sacraments or perform priestly duties. Lesser disciplinary actions are private caution and informal or formal probation. Excommunication results in a member's name being removed from the church records and disfellowshipment; an excommunicated member may not wear temple undergarments or tithe to the church, and the member's temple sealings to spouse and children are suspended.

Excommunicated members may rejoin the church after repenting and undergoing re-baptism. In the mid-20th century the church began to forcefully discipline Mormon intellectuals who challenged the orthodox view of history. The historian Fawn McKay Brodie came from a devout Mormon family in Utah -- her uncle would become the church president in 1950. In 1945 she published No Man Knows My History, a biography of Joseph Smith that was the first modern biography of the prophet to challenge the divine origins of Smith's revelations and the Book of Mormon. Her family connections notwithstanding, she was promptly excommunicated. In addition, Hugh Nibley, a Brigham Young University professor, wrote an answer to Ms. Brodie's book called No Ma'am That's Not History. It is not clear whether Nibley's work was a church assignment, but his attack was published by a Mormon publisher.

The most well known example of church discipline of intellectuals came in 1993, when the church excommunicated five Mormon scholars and disfellowshipped another for separately publishing articles that troubled church leaders because they raised questions about church doctrine and history. One member of the so-called"September Six" was D. Michael Quinn, an openly gay Mormon historian, who researched the continued practice of polygamy by some church leaders after it had been banned by the 1890 Manifesto.

Lavina Anderson, another of the September Six, who published in and edited the free-thinking Mormon publications Dialogue and Sunstone, accused church leaders of keeping tabs on Mormon scholars, a practice the church later confirmed. Journalists Richard and Joan Ostling write in their book Mormon America, "No other sizable religion in America monitors its followers in this way." And so, it appears that there are, indeed, opportunities for young people to apply for the missionary position. Most any church seeks missionary recruits . . . but few churches make the demands and expectations of their recruits as do the Latter Day Saints.

It is a fascinating world, this position of the missionary. Few of us would likely be up to the task.


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