Restoration and Church History
Growth of Missionary Work

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“Growth of Missionary Work,” Church History Topics

“Growth of Missionary Work”

Growth of Missionary Work

Missionary work in the late 1800s was difficult as hostility mounted against the Latter-day Saint practice of plural marriage. Many governments placed restrictions on Latter-day Saint missionaries. After President Wilford Woodruff issued the 1890 Manifesto, which led to the end of plural marriage, he also reinvigorated the missions of the Church, located primarily in the United States, Europe, and the Pacific Islands.1 By the 1910s, missions had opened in Latin America and Japan and extended to Tonga and other Pacific Islands. Missionary work grew considerably for the rest of the 20th century.

Restructuring Missions

During the first decades after the Church was organized, the Church’s missions did not have strict geographic boundaries and were not always supervised by a formally called president. By the time of Wilford Woodruff’s presidency, Church leaders had established more well-defined missions, with headquarter offices, presidents, and clearer boundaries. These missions functioned as ecclesiastical units of the Church, and mission presidents were responsible not only to oversee missionary work but also to regulate branches where there were no established stakes of Zion.2

Starting in the 1850s, women served in the mission field by accompanying their missionary husbands and contributing to domestic and educational endeavors.3 In 1898 the First Presidency approved some mission presidents’ requests for women to proselytize, and soon women received formal mission calls, were set apart, and preached in public. Sister missionaries, especially in Europe, proved excellent advocates for the Church at a time when public attitudes toward the Saints’ earlier practice of polygamy remained fierce.4

British Mission. 1906 (Grant/Smith)

President Joseph F. Smith and Elder Heber J. Grant with missionaries from the British Mission in 1906.

As the first generation of missionaries grew older, they struggled to provide for their families while away on missions, and Church leaders began to restructure mission calls and procedures. In the 1870s, the average missionary was over 40 years old and usually married, but by the first decade of the 20th century, most missionaries were single and in their early- to mid-20s. During the 19th century, most missionaries held the office of Seventy in the Melchizedek Priesthood.5 After 1900, men holding the office of elder came to comprise the bulk of the missionary force. The length of a typical mission varied from one to three years depending on the location of service and the circumstances of the missionary. By the early decades of the 20th century, two-year missions became the standard.6

Between 1890 and 1930 the Church transitioned away from the widespread gathering effort that helped Latter-day Saints relocate from their homelands to areas in the American West.7 The number of Church members migrating to Utah and the surrounding region dropped from around 2,000 a year before the 1910s to less than 300 per year by 1945.8 This change gave missionaries a new objective: rather than nurturing a stream of converts heading to Zion, they focused on building stakes of Zion abroad. Mission leaders began to subdivide their missions into “zones” and “districts,” the boundaries of which frequently corresponded with those of stakes and wards.

Worldwide Expansion and the Missionary Program

Growth in the number of missions during the 20th century was driven by two factors. First, Church leaders frequently divided missions as the branches and stakes within them multiplied. Second, Apostles opened new fields by entering nations receptive to Latter-day Saint proselytizing and dedicating lands for the preaching of the gospel. By the 1940s mission presidents supervised over 40 missions in Europe, North and South America, the Pacific Islands, and parts of Asia. World War II slowed the expansion of missions, although missionary work continued despite many Latter-day Saint men being recruited into military service. After the war, American Latter-day Saint servicemen, and servicewomen in some cases, helped introduce or reestablish the Church in countries where they were stationed, particularly in Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand.9

[Gordon B. Hinckley and USS Kitty Hawk servicemen's group members 1964 Apr. 15]

Elder Gordon B. Hinckley with Kitty Hawk servicemen’s group members outside the Southern Far East Mission home in Hong Kong, 1964.

Church Presidents Joseph F. Smith, Heber J. Grant, and David O. McKay were instrumental in centralizing mission administration at Church headquarters throughout the first half of the 20th century. Apostles in 1900 formed a missionary committee to systematize missionary work, and for the next 30 years, a general missionary secretary relayed correspondence between committee members and mission presidents, processed mission calls, and helped arrange missionaries’ travel. In 1935 the Radio, Publicity, and Mission Literature Committee formed, with newly returned missionary Gordon B. Hinckley as its executive secretary. For over 20 years, Hinckley shouldered increasing demands on paperwork and administration from Salt Lake City, eventually functioning as a director of operations after various missionary committees were consolidated into a single Missionary Department in 1951. By the 1960s the department implemented a streamlined and centralized program of rotating missionary personnel, securing travel visas, preparing mission presidents and missionaries for service, and developing curriculum.10

During the 19th century, missionaries did not use a consistent approach to preaching the gospel. Instead they taught from the scriptures and popular missionary tracts or pamphlets. Over time mission presidents began to establish more standardized approaches to teaching. Various plans circulated in the Church’s missions during the early 20th century, and a handbook was published in the 1930s. In 1952 the Church’s missionary committee developed a new curriculum for training missionaries to teach the gospel to prospective converts, or “investigators.” This “uniform system” outlined discussions for teaching gospel principles in investigators’ homes and extending invitations to be baptized and to serve in a branch or ward.11

A Foundation for the Future in San Antonio

Missionary pamphlet published in the Mexican Mission, 1921.

As the missionary force became younger, the need to provide training to prepare them for their ministry increased. Beginning in the 1880s, Brigham Young Academy and later other institutions of higher learning in Utah and Idaho offered courses in missionary preparation. After 1925 a Missionary Home in Salt Lake City provided a week-long training for outgoing missionaries. Missionaries had long faced the challenge of learning foreign languages, and mission presidents often developed their own language training strategies. In 1961 missionary language training began at Brigham Young University. Soon Church leaders called a mission president to direct the program and launched the Language Training Mission (LTM) for missionaries who needed to learn a language in order to serve. In 1978 the Missionary Home was closed and the LTM campus was renamed the Missionary Training Center (MTC).12 Most outgoing missionaries were sent to the MTC to receive overall training in addition to any foreign-language instruction. More training centers were built on the MTC model and numbered more than a dozen throughout the world by the year 2000.13

Language Training Mission, BYU 1964

Exterior of buildings at the Language Training Mission, Brigham Young University, 1964.

Significant Strides

Missions continued to expand under the direction of President David O. McKay and subsequent Church Presidents. In the 1950s and ’60s, David O. McKay championed wide involvement in the missionary effort with the slogan “Every member a missionary.” He also dispatched Apostles to open more nations for preaching and systematized the reports, programs, and standards of mission organizations.14 In the 1970s and ’80s, Spencer W. Kimball called for greater participation and a more ambitious vision for the potential growth of the Church in the world. Under his administration, the number of full-time missionaries increased dramatically, and preaching methods received meticulous review and improvement. President Kimball designated the preaching of the gospel as one of the Church’s three primary purposes.15

In the 1990s and early 2000s, President Gordon B. Hinckley directed a curriculum update that culminated with the publication of Preach My Gospel, a teaching model based on heightened spirituality and qualifications of individual missionaries.16 In 2012 President Thomas S. Monson announced a reduction in the minimum age for missionary service for both men and women, which led to a sharp increase in the number of missionaries. Less than a year later, the First Presidency announced the creation of 58 new missions, bringing the total number to 405—the largest single expansion of the Church’s operating missions in history.17 Missions have continued to evolve, at times merging or consolidating under the direction of Church leaders as they seek to carry out the scriptural injunction to take the gospel to all people.

Related Topics: Early Missionaries, The Gathering of Israel, Emigration, Turkish Mission