“Early Missionaries,” Church History Topics
Even before the organization of the Church in 1830, the Lord commanded Latter-day Saints to take the restored gospel to the world. Missionary work began while the Book of Mormon was still being published, and steadily gained momentum during Joseph Smith’s lifetime. Early missions were usually brief campaigns carried out by newly ordained elders in what time they could spare. Joseph Smith sent missionaries throughout the United States, Canada, England, and the Pacific. As Latter-day Saints gathered to the American West in the 1840s and 1850s, they turned their attention to colonizing efforts, and many who desired to serve missions received calls to settle rather than preach. Even so, Brigham Young encouraged proselytizing missions and assigned members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to oversee missions in each region of the world, and he dispatched them to open these areas for missionary work. By 1860, the brief missions of the early years had developed into more organized missions and sustained preaching tours, especially in Europe and the Pacific.
Relatives and friends of Joseph Smith were excited to share the Book of Mormon even before he had finished translating it.1 When the first pages came off the press, men like Solomon Chamberlin evangelized with printed proof sheets.2 Samuel Harrison Smith, Joseph’s brother, went on a preaching mission shortly after the founding meeting of the Church. He carried a satchel of copies of the Book of Mormon to sell. Missionaries like Samuel Smith held cottage meetings, or small gatherings in homes, where they spoke about the Book of Mormon and the latter-day restoration.3 Both men and women shared the gospel informally with their friends and neighbors, in person and by letter.4
The first members of the Church anticipated taking the Book of Mormon to the American Indians.5 A revelation in 1830 called Oliver Cowdery and three companions on a mission to the “Lamanites.” They traveled to American Indian territory beyond the western boundary of Missouri. Though the legal and political situation at the time prevented the group from extended preaching among American Indian communities, they found success in Kirtland, Ohio. Within weeks of their arrival in Kirtland, they had baptized dozens of individuals. The Church soon enjoyed a strong community of new converts in Kirtland, many of whom served short missions themselves.6
Early missionaries often started their preaching tours among relatives and then branched out by selling or lending copies of the Book of Mormon to all who would receive them. The Book of Mormon was presented as evidence of Joseph Smith’s calling to restore Christ’s Church. Missionaries soon began to write tracts (pamphlets designed for proselytizing) to spread word of the restoration of the gospel. Their message centered on the restoration of Christ’s original Church, the importance of spiritual gifts as evidence of true faith, and the gathering of repentant souls to prepare for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
One of Joseph Smith’s first revelations in Kirtland in 1831 instructed missionaries to journey “two by two,” and mission calls were often extended to companionships to labor in specific areas.7 Many of the first missionaries received their commissions through revelations received by Joseph Smith. These revelations reiterated instructions Jesus Christ gave His disciples anciently—that they should travel without “purse or scrip” and “shake off the dust” of their feet as they left a town or house that rejected them.8 To travel “without purse or scrip” meant to take neither wallet nor money, but, as was common at the time, to ask listeners for temporary room and board. When missionaries met with especially severe rejection, they dusted their feet as a sign that they had testified and moved on. As missions became more structured and branches were established in many areas in the late 1800s, these practices became much less common. Missionaries seldom abandoned established areas, and they made financial sacrifices before departing to help fund their own missions.9
Elders oversaw meetings during their mission tours, and within a few years, branches of the Church were established throughout the eastern United States and Canada. Among the first tasks Joseph entrusted to the Apostles when he organized the Quorum of the Twelve in 1835 was to regulate these branches and coordinate the physical gathering of converts to Zion.10 Under Joseph’s direction, the Twelve thereafter presided over all missionary work.
The British Mission, founded by members of the Quorum of the Twelve in the late 1830s and early 1840s, was a thriving center of Church growth. The mission resulted in thousands of baptisms and supported the migration of multitudes to gathering places such as Nauvoo, Illinois. In Britain, the Twelve worked to strengthen the branches and conferences (groups of branches). Together with other missionaries, they canvassed Great Britain, preaching the gospel and preparing converts to immigrate to America. When the first Latter-day Saints started settling the Great Basin, a significant proportion were converts from the British Mission.11
British Saints organized tract societies in the 1850s, and both men and women distributed pamphlets explaining Latter-day Saint beliefs. Women were especially effective in this effort and became, in one sense, the first sister missionaries, but this was long before women received formal mission calls.12
In 1842, Joseph Smith wrote of missionaries erecting “the standard of truth” in “Germany, Palestine, New Holland, the East Indies, and other places.”13 Missions in these and other areas had been planned, but missionaries had not yet reached or established permanent branches in these locations. Though a few attempts to establish missions outside the United States and Europe during Joseph Smith’s lifetime bore limited fruit, most of these ambitious plans remained unfulfilled until the 1850s.
Orson Hyde, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, traveled to Jerusalem to dedicate the Holy Land for the return of the Jews, though he did not launch a permanent mission there.14 Beginning in the 1850s, a thriving mission in Denmark served as a gateway to new missions in Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland. Addison Pratt, who headed the first missions to the Pacific, established a branch in Tahiti, and his wife, Louisa Barnes Pratt, worked with Caroline Crosby and other missionaries to start a school for children and to teach domestic crafts to island women.15 Missions in the early 1850s to China, India, Chile, France, Italy, and South Africa resulted in a small number of converts, most of whom either drifted away from the Church or immigrated to Utah. Many of these locations would have to wait decades before the first permanent missionary presence and Church branches were formed.
Missionaries in the mid-19th century were typically married men in their 30s or 40s. They were often called at Church conference meetings and frequently left behind their wives, children, and business concerns to serve for one to three years. The age of missionaries and duration of their service varied, with missionaries largely determining their own date of release. A handful of women accompanied their husbands. Typically these were the wives of mission presidents or of other missionaries whose calls would take them to remote locations for extended periods of time. Missionaries were usually ordained to the office of Seventy in the Melchizedek Priesthood and were often called to serve missions in their homeland or the homeland of their parents. The British Mission was the largest mission in terms of the number of missionaries and converts, but missions in the United States grew steadily later in the 1800s.
A decade after the Saints arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, hostility arose between the Church and the United States government. The Utah War of 1857–58 led to a temporary pause in missionary work that lasted into the 1860s. Preaching efforts continued in Britain and western Europe but slowed in the United States and elsewhere. The average length of a mission dropped to less than a year. Even after this pause, missionary work grew slowly as missionaries faced opposition to the Saints’ practice of plural marriage. Even so, Church leaders continued to organize missions with set geographical boundaries and mission presidents and to call an increasing number of younger men (and eventually women) as full-time proselytizers to meet the demand for missionaries throughout the world.16