Service Missionaries Building the Church
April 2023

Digital Only

Service Missionaries Building the Church

How service missionaries throughout Church history have helped share the gospel.

a collage of service missionaries

When Elder Nathaniel Johnson completed his full-time mission, he reflected on the prior two years—the work he did, the people he blessed, and the way he had grown. He was assigned to serve in one of 124 bishops’ storehouses operated by the Church worldwide. He unloaded trucks, stocked shelves, and kept the storehouse clean.

For him, the most meaningful experiences were helping patrons fill orders for sorely needed food and commodities. He said, “I was basically bringing the light of Christ into other people’s lives so they could know they are part of Heavenly Father’s plan.”

On hectic days during the COVID-19 pandemic, patrons lined up around the block and the storehouse was open for 10 hours a day. “I learned that when the Lord is with us, we’ll be able to do anything and get through any challenge,”1 he observed.

Elder Johnson continues a long tradition of missionaries called to build the Church in ways besides proselytizing. Since the Church’s earliest days, missionaries have been called to labor in mines, paint murals in temples, gather genealogy, build schools and Church buildings, and provide welfare and humanitarian service. Their labors advance the Church’s work to lift and bless God’s children intellectually, socially, and temporally, as well as spiritually. In the process, missionaries’ testimonies are also strengthened, and they gain skills and experience to last a lifetime.

Early Efforts

Joseph Smith and other Church leaders occasionally served missions for purposes other than proselytizing. On February 24, 1834, for example, Joseph Smith received a revelation that instructed him and seven others to “gather” together “the strength of [the Lord’s] house” to redeem Zion (Doctrine and Covenants 103:22). They were commanded to travel through “the congregations in the eastern countries” and proclaim the need for men and money to accomplish Zion’s redemption (Doctrine and Covenants 103:29–40). Orson Hyde was also directed to solicit donations that the Church could use to purchase land in Missouri and to pay off a debt incurred for the Kirtland Temple.2

When Brigham Young became President of the Church, he called individuals on missions with more temporal aims, recognizing that even temporal tasks have spiritual purposes. In 1856, he appointed missionaries to travel to the Las Vegas area to attempt lead mining. Others were called to mine and smelt iron.3 These types of temporal missions were fairly common in the nineteenth century.

Art Missionaries

In the late nineteenth century, the Church sent selected artists to study in Paris, France, so that they could paint murals in the Salt Lake Temple. John Hafen, John B. Fairbanks, and Lorus Pratt were called and set apart in 1890 specifically as “art missionaries.” They studied at the prestigious Académie Julian in Paris. Like all missionaries, they relied on the Lord’s guidance and felt His spirit in their work. John Hafen wrote, “I have a testimony that the Lord will enable me to accomplish all that is necessary in the year al[l]otted for me to stay here.”4 According to scholars Martha Elizabeth Bradley and Lowell M. Durham Jr., these art missionaries were “unique. Never since then has there been an attempt to repeat the experience, although the immediate results of the effort were markedly successful.”5

Education Missionaries

In addition to funding individuals seeking education in art, the Church called individuals to study law, engineering, and medicine. Brigham Young sent Heber John Richards to New York City in 1867 to train at the Bellevue Hospital Medical College. He was instructed to participate actively in the congregation of Saints in New York City and to preach the gospel when not in class. Romania Pratt responded to Brigham Young’s call for more female medical doctors. Before she left to study medicine at the Woman’s Medical College in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, Romania received a blessing from President Young, who arranged financial support for Romania from the Relief Society.6

Today, service missionaries continue to support the Church Educational System in roles such as education specialists and teacher trainers.

Genealogical Missionaries

The work to perform proxy ordinances for deceased ancestors in temples created a critical need for genealogical information. Many volunteered to travel to archives and ancestral homelands to gather it. Although these volunteers served without formal calls, they did so with the blessing of Church leaders. Volunteers continued to serve in genealogical roles throughout the 1900s. Gradually their service became more formalized. By 1979 the Church was calling missionaries to serve at headquarters in a variety of positions.7 So it was natural in 1981 to call full-time missionaries to serve in the Genealogical Library. Today, missionaries serve in almost every aspect of family history work in locations around the world.8

Building Missionaries

In 1950, the Church was constructing Liahona High School in Tonga, but it could not find enough skilled workers to complete it. The mission president in Tonga “decided to call a group of young Tongan men on special labor missions.” These young men helped to construct the high school, much like Church members in Kirtland, Ohio, and Nauvoo, Illinois, had provided labor for the building of temples. The idea soon spread to other parts of the Pacific and eventually to locations around the world. The program “blessed many branches with new and beautiful chapels while it provided vocational training for hundreds of young men.”9

Many expressed gratitude for the opportunity to serve. Boyd Richardson, who served on a building project in Ohio, stated, “I have completed a proselyting mission here in the U.S. and by [virtue] of that experience I leave my testimony that the same sweet spirit exists among Church Builders as exists among proselyting Elders.” Richardson continued, “As a proselyting mission [affects] an Elder’s whole life and character, so does a building mission.”

Others noted that the building program itself helped bring people into the Church and strengthened the testimonies of already-baptized members. Don H. Worthen said, “It is very interesting to watch the people as they pass by each day and to hear their comments. They get interested stop and ask questions, and then we get our chance to tell them about the gospel, and to bear our testimonies to them.” James and Ruth Morse, serving in England, had similar thoughts. “We noticed the great change that inactive members had in their attitude toward the Church once the new chapels were started,” the Morses explained. “They seem to take pride in bringing people along to see what the [Church members] are doing and then in a short time, they are over working on the project themselves and for the most part, they can then be reactivated to Church duties.”10

Today, missionaries continue to support building maintenance around the world in various ways depending on local needs.

Welfare Missionaries

Numerous individuals and couples have served both international and local welfare missions. The variety and scope of their service grew to span both the globe and the range of human need. As they have served on projects including instruction and practical help on food security, medical aid, sewing, clean water projects, and literacy to help for the disabled, welfare missionaries have followed the Savior’s example to care for those in need. Their reports show the spiritual dimension of this temporal service. Sister Connie Polve and her companion, both nurses serving welfare missions in Paraguay, treated an infant suffering from a severe skin infection. She reported, “I distinctly felt the Spirit of the Holy Ghost descend upon me and I knew that I was no longer operating under my own direction, but was indeed being a literal tool in the hand of the Lord to do a work for Him upon the earth.” The infant recovered, and the family—once “lost, timid people”—radiated “strength and [the] light of Christ [in] their countenances.”11 Today, over 11,000 missionaries care for those in need in 188 countries.12

An Ongoing Work of the Lord

Today, service missionaries continue to do the work of the Lord in a variety of ways. Those opportunities may include supporting welfare needs, assisting individuals and families in their community, helping local Church programs and operations, taking care of physical facilities, assisting with communications, creating items that others need, indexing and doing family history work, partnering with charitable organizations, and many more. Often, these missionaries may even serve in multiple assignments throughout their missions as they participate in the work of the Lord.

The contributions of generations of service missionaries stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the efforts of proselytizing missionaries building the Church and the kingdom of God. Their labors overlap and intertwine, lifting and blessing God’s children in all aspects of their lives. The missionaries receive blessings in equal measure for their fervor in what is truly one work: assisting the Lord Jesus Christ in the work of salvation and exaltation as He “bring[s] to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39).


  1. Nathaniel Johnson, interview by John Heath, Oct. 20, 2022.

  2. See Alex D. Smith, Alexander L. Baugh, Brenden W. Rensink, Matthew C. Godfrey, and Max H. Parkin, eds., Documents, Volume 4: April 1834–September 1835, vol. 4 of the Documents series of The Joseph Smith Papers, ed. Ronald K. Esplin and Matthew J. Grow (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2008), 82–84.

  3. See Morris A. Shirts and Kathryn H. Shirts, A Trial Furnace: Southern Utah’s Iron Mission (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 2001).

  4. B. F. Larsen, “John Hafen,” unpublished manuscript, Brigham Young University, Harold B. Lee Library, Special Collections, in Martha Elizabeth Bradley and Lowell M. Durham Jr., “John Hafen and the Art Missionaries,” Journal of Mormon History 12 (1985), 99.

  5. Martha Elizabeth Bradley and Lowell M. Durham Jr., “John Hafen and the Art Missionaries,” Journal of Mormon History 12 (1985), 104.

  6. See Shana Montgomery, “Esther Romania Bunnell Pratt Penrose (1839–1932): An Uphill Climb,” in Worth Their Salt, Too: More Notable But Often Unnoted Women of Utah, ed. Colleen Whitley (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2000), 29–39.

  7. Personnel Committee, President N. Eldon Tanner, Chairman, to Stake Presidents and Bishops on the Wasatch Front, September 5, 1979, Church History Library.

  8. See Experiences and Impressions of Genealogical Missionaries, 1981–1986, vol. 2, compiled by Zelda Merritt (Salt Lake City: Family History Library, 1986).

  9. R. Lanier Britsch, “The Church in the South Pacific,” Ensign, Feb. 1976, 27.

  10. Don H. Worthen, “Letter to Brother Mendenhall,” in Testimonies of Church Building Supervisors and Church Builders, compiled in the office of Doris Taggart, Church History Library, 22; see also James and Ruth Morse, “Testimony of James and Ruth Morse,” in Testimonies of Church Building Supervisors and Church Builders, 22.

  11. Connie Polve, “Welfare Service Missionary Experience in Paraguay,” Church History Library.

  12. “Caring for Those in Need: 2021 Annual Report of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” latterdaysaintcharities.org.