“Early Missionary Calls: Voices from a Century Ago,” Liahona, March 2021
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the First Presidency called tens of thousands of members to serve as missionaries throughout the world. These missionary candidates then wrote back to the First Presidency to say whether they would accept their calls. Despite personal difficulties, many expressed their willingness to serve. One cannot read these letters without appreciating their faith, humility, and sacrifice in answering the call to serve the Lord.1
At that time, consideration for missionary service began when bishops and stake presidents submitted the names of potential missionaries to the First Presidency, often without the knowledge of the candidate. These recommendations were made regardless of the member’s age, financial circumstances, marital and family status, or the number of missions previously served. The Church’s central mission office mailed a letter to the candidate, asking about his or her health, adherence to the Word of Wisdom, and ability with languages beyond English. After receiving a response, the First Presidency would issue a formal mission call with the return address of “Box B,” a telltale sign that the letter was a mission call.
Most responses to mission calls show great faith in the Lord and desire to build the Church “Not my will but His—in fact, I will try to make His will mine,” wrote O. U. Bean, a schoolteacher trying to raise enough money to attend college and settle his family’s debts. He expressed willingness to forgo everything to serve, stating, “A mission is as good a school as college.”2
Joseph Eckersley accepted a call to Great Britain, stating, “I made a solemn covenant with the Lord in which I dedicated my life and labors to His service.”3
William A. Morton stated, “I am persuaded that He who qualified the poor, uneducated fishermen of Galilee for their mission, and caused them to stand before kings and rulers for His name’s sake, could in like manner qualify me.”5
Not all who received mission calls were enthusiastic about serving. John Alma Hess referred to his mission call as “that cursed letter from Box B,”6 but went on to serve a three-year mission to Germany. A surprised Eli Beckstead wrote, “I am not a believer in the gospel … but will investigate the Church works a little more fully, and you might possibly hear from me in the future.”7 When Clarence E. Post responded, “Dear Bro., I am ready to go but don’t want to go very bad,” President Joseph F. Smith (1838–1918) assigned the Church mission secretary to “comfort him.”8 Elder Post began serving in the Northwestern States Mission one month later.
It was common for older men to be called to leave a wife and children in order to serve. In 1880, Bishop Willard G. Smith recommended 80-year-old Thomas Colborn as a missionary, stating that he was in good enough physical shape to “dance a hornpipe.”9 At age 72, Henry Worley responded to his mission call stating that he would like to “end his days in the work of the Lord.”10 Lars N. Christiansen, also 72, requested to be released as bishop so he could return to his native Denmark to “serve dead and living relatives.”11
On the other end of the age spectrum, William H. Jensen was called at age 17 and promised, “I shall do my best to serve the cause that I am privileged to represent.”12 When 10-year-old Spencer Jakeman wrote to ask if he could accompany Marten F. Sanders as a missionary to Samoa, President Joseph F. Smith, then a counselor in the First Presidency, kindly responded, “I am of the opinion that he is a little too young, yet, … and it would be better to wait two or three years and then go with more mature body and mind.”13
In March 1898, the First Presidency began calling single sister missionaries. Soon after, when accepting a mission call to the southwestern states, Amelia B. Carling replied, “I want to do whatever is in my power in helping to roll on the work of the Lord.”14
Many sisters’ acceptance letters were simple expressions of gratitude at the opportunity to serve, while others tell stories of incredible courage and faith. Julia Curtis’s husband died before he could fill his mission call. After her baby also died, she wrote to the First Presidency, saying, “I now am alone, ready and anxious to fill this mission and take my husband’s place.”15 Julia was called to serve in Colorado, and upon her return, she married one of the missionaries who had previously served in that mission.
Laura F. Christensen accepted a mission call in 1901 and expressed hope that her service as a missionary would benefit her family: “My family are not Mormons and consequently give me little encouragement. However, I think when they find I am willing and happy to sacrifice for my religion, they will begin to believe there is something genuine in Mormonism. … There is a ray of hope that perhaps my missionary letters and experiences as they read them will … prove valuable.”16
Many of these mission call responses contain penciled-in reactions from President Joseph F. Smith—counselor in the First Presidency with responsibility for missionary calls—that reveal his compassion and wit. When one missionary reported being “shockingly surprised” at the call, President Smith noted, “I am glad he recovered.”17
Another respondent claimed he was uneducated in the gospel and in debt: “Under the circumstances that I am in, I will say that I cannot go on no conditions.” President Smith wryly reacted, “Nuf sed.”18
After reading the response, “Dear sir, will not go on mission,” President Smith observed, “Bad for him but good for the mission!”19
Finally, in response to the statement, “I do not think I believe in any religion,” President Smith suggested, “He might make a good missionary if converted.”20
Evan S. Morgan, age 62, accepted his mission call even with health concerns, stating, “Such as I am, I am at the Master’s pleasure. He died for me, and I hope that I shall never consider my life as too great a sacrifice to offer unto Him, if necessary, in return.” To this, President Smith replied, “God bless and heal that man, for he has a noble spirit; and his generous offering of sacrifice for the gospel’s sake is accepted. Let him be honorably released from the call with our blessing.”21
Above all, the letters reveal the faith and sacrifice of early missionaries. In 1885, Heber J. Sears and his young bride received a mission call to New Zealand and reported that they immediately began to sell their possessions to pay for the mission and accept the call.22 John Kleinman mentioned his extreme debt but also his willingness: “By disposing of everything I have got, it will clear me but leave me nothing to go on. But if you say so, I will clear up and go.” President Joseph F. Smith replied, “An excellent spirit! Say to him to take time to relieve himself of debts and fix his affairs for a mission. And when he can go without too much sacrifice of property and time, let him report his readiness to go.”23
Many times, the sacrifice was borne by the family or community. In 1879, Bishop George Halliday reported that his ward was willing to finance a missionary’s passage to Scandinavia and support his family of six while he served.24 John Cottam left a wife and one-year-old daughter to serve in Holland, stating only, “I accept the call and will be on hand to leave when the time comes.”25 It is impossible to determine how many thousands of the responses were silent as to the sacrifice that the missionaries and their families were willing to bear.
These mission response letters tell the story of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Their letters are open and honest, sometimes humorous, tender, and insightful. These faithful Saints faced many of the same challenges we do: anxiety, financial concerns, poor health, or discouragement. Their mission acceptance letters and service are a true testament that “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).