Teachings of Presidents
Chapter 9: Our Missionary Duty

“Chapter 9: Our Missionary Duty,” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith (2011), 76–85

“Chapter 9,” Teachings: Joseph F. Smith, 76–85

Chapter 9

Our Missionary Duty

Missionaries go into the world to testify of Jesus Christ and to sow the precious seed of eternal life.

From the Life of Joseph F. Smith

Shortly after his arrival in Hawaii on 20 October 1854, Joseph F. Smith wrote a letter to his father’s cousin George A. Smith, the member of the Quorum of the Twelve who had ordained him an elder. The young missionary pledged himself to the work of the Lord, saying, “I am happy to say that I am ready to go through thick and thin for this cause in which I am engaged; and truly hope and pray that I may prove faithful to the end.”1 His faith would be tried many times.

At one time a fire destroyed most of his belongings, including “clothing, copies of the first edition (European) of the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, which had been given as a present to the Patriarch Hyrum Smith. In one of these books Elder Joseph F. Smith had placed his Elder’s certificate. When the house was destroyed with its contents, Elder Smith’s trunk, and every article in it was reduced to ashes except his missionary certificate. In some remarkable manner it was preserved intact, except that it was scorched around the edges, but not one word was obliterated even though the book in which it was contained was entirely consumed. Not only were the books destroyed but also Elder Smith’s journals which he had faithfully kept.”

Out of this experience came an amusing incident, which was serious at the time. The clothing of the missionaries was destroyed, so Joseph F. Smith and his companion for a short time had to share one suit between them. One elder stayed at home while the other wore the suit and went to meetings. Then the situation was reversed and the other elder stayed at home while his fellow companion went to meetings. “Of course this did not continue but for a short time, but it was one amusing story that was frequently told in later years, when time had removed the suffering Elders far from the scene of their embarrassment and difficulties.”2

Joseph F. Smith at about age 19

Joseph F. Smith at about age 19 just after his return from the Hawaiian Mission in 1858.

Teachings of Joseph F. Smith

Missionaries should live so that they have constant communion with the Spirit of God.

One of the indispensable qualifications of the elders who go out into the world to preach is humility, meekness and love unfeigned, for the well-being and the salvation of the human family, and the desire to establish peace and righteousness in the earth among men. We can not preach the gospel of Christ without this spirit of humility, meekness, faith in God and reliance upon his promises and word to us. You may learn all the wisdom of men, but that will not qualify you to do these things like the humble, guiding influence of the Spirit of God will. “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.” [Proverbs 16:18.]

It is necessary for the elders who go out into the world to preach to study the spirit of the gospel, which is the spirit of humility, the spirit of meekness and of true devotion to whatever purpose you set your hand or your mind to do. If it is to preach the gospel, we should devote ourselves to the duties of that ministry, and we ought to strive with the utmost of our ability to qualify ourselves to perform that specific labor, and the way to do it is to live so that the spirit of God will have communion and be present with us to direct us in every moment and hour of our ministry, night and day.3

My brethren, you are engaged in the work of God; you are in the harness; you receive to a great extent the Spirit of the Gospel because you are engaged in it exclusively. You are ministers of the everlasting covenant. You pray; you don’t forget your prayers, surely. An Elder cannot forget his prayers; he cannot forget the Lord; he will certainly remember Him if he is in the line of his duty. If he places himself in a position where he can accomplish the most good, he cannot forget the Lord morning, noon and night. He prays to the Lord, and humbles himself before Him and acknowledges Him. If you are in this line you are enjoying His Spirit.4

A missionary should have in himself the testimony of the Spirit of God—the witness of the Holy Ghost. … Men are not converted by eloquence or oratory; they are convinced when they are satisfied that you have the truth and the Spirit of God.5

Missionaries should be honest, virtuous, and faithful to their covenants.

It is deemed inconsistent to send men out into the world to promise to others through obedience to the gospel that which they have not themselves received. Neither is it considered proper to send men out to reform them. Let them first reform at home if they have not been strictly keeping the commandments of God. This applies to the Word of Wisdom as well as to all other laws of heaven. No objection is offered to men being called who in earlier years may have been rough or wayward, if in later years they have lived a godly life and brought forth the precious fruits of repentance.6

We want young men … who have kept themselves unspotted from the world, and can go into the nations of the earth and say to men, “Follow me, as I follow Christ.” Then we would like to have them know how to sing, and to pray. We expect them to be honest, virtuous, and faithful unto death to their covenants, to their brethren, to their wives, to their fathers and mothers, to their brothers and sisters, to themselves and to God. Where you get men like this to preach the gospel to the world, whether they know much to begin with or not, the Lord will put his Spirit into their hearts, and he will crown them with intelligence and power to save the souls of men. For the germ of life is in them. It has not been vitiated or corrupted; it has not been driven away from them.7

It is not necessary that our young people should know of the wickedness carried on in any place. Such knowledge is not elevating, and it is quite likely that more than one young man can trace the first step of his downfall to a curiosity which led him into questionable places. Let the young men of Zion, whether they be on missions or whether they be at home, shun all dens of infamy. It is not necessary that they should know what is going on in such places. No man is better or stronger for such knowledge. Let them remember that “the knowledge of sin tempteth to its commission,” and then avoid those temptations that in time to come may threaten their virtue and their standing in the Church of Christ.8

The characteristics of a good missionary are: A man who has sociability—whose friendship is permanent and sparkling—who can ingratiate himself into the confidence and favor of men who are in darkness. This cannot be done offhand. You must get acquainted with a man, learn him and gain his confidence and make him feel and know that your only desire is to do him good and bless him; then you can tell him your message, and give him the good things you have for him, kindly and lovingly. Therefore, in selecting missionaries, choose such as have sociability, who have friendship and not enmity towards men; and if you have not any such in your ward, train and qualify some young men for this work.9

Missionaries are to teach the gospel of life by the Spirit with simplicity.

Our elders are instructed here, and they are taught from their childhood up, that they are not to go out and make war upon the religious organizations of the world when they are called to go out to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, but to go and bear with them the message which has been given to us through the instrumentality of the Prophet Joseph, in this latter dispensation, whereby men may learn the truth, if they will.

They are sent out to offer the olive branch of peace to the world, to offer the knowledge that God has spoken from the heavens once more to his children upon the earth; that God has in his mercy restored again to the world the fulness of the gospel of his Only Begotten Son, in the flesh, that God has revealed and restored to mankind the divine power and authority from himself, whereby they are enabled and authorized to perform the ordinances of the gospel of Jesus Christ necessary for their salvation; and their performance of these ordinances must of necessity be acceptable unto God who has given to them the authority to perform them in his name.

Our elders are sent out to preach repentance of sin, to preach righteousness, to preach to the world the gospel of life, of fellowship, and of friendship among mankind, to teach men and women to do that which is right in the sight of God and in the presence of all men, to teach them the fact that God has organized his Church, a Church of which he, himself, is the author and the founder.10

The question often arises in the minds of young men who find themselves in the mission field, “What shall I say?” And another follows closely upon it, “How shall I say it?” … While no specific rule may be given, experience has taught that the simplest way is the best. Having learned the principles of the gospel, through a prayerful spirit and by careful study, these should be presented to men in humility, in the simplest forms of speech, without presumption or arrogance and in the spirit of the mission of Christ. This cannot be done if a young missionary waste his effort in a vain-glorious attempt to become a noisy orator. This is the point I wish to impress upon the elders, and to advise that all oratorical effort be confined to appropriate times and places. The mission field is not the place for such effort. The gospel is not successfully taught by ostentatious display of words and argument, but rather is expressed by modest and rational statements of its simple truth, uttered in a way that will touch the heart and appeal, as well, to reason and sound sense.

… The spirit must first be with the missionary, if he shall succeed in awakening its response in his hearers; and this is true whether the words be spoken in conversation, face to face, or in public gatherings. The spirit will not manifest itself in the person who devotes his time to deliver what he has to say in pompous words or with display of oratory. He hopes to please artificially, and not effectively through the heart.11

No man is able to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ of himself; for the things of God knoweth no man but by the Spirit of God which is in him [see 1 Corinthians 2:11]. For any man to attempt to preach the word of the Lord by his own wisdom and knowledge, independent of inspiration, is simply mockery. No man can preach God and godliness and the truth as it is in Christ Jesus except he be inspired by the Holy Spirit. The disciples in ancient time walked and conversed with the Savior during His mission among the children of men, and yet … they were commanded to tarry in Jerusalem and to go not out to preach until they were endowed with power from on high; in other words, until the Holy Spirit should be poured out upon them by which their minds would be quickened, their understandings enlarged, the testimony of Jesus Christ planted in their hearts, that they might bear that testimony to those unto whom they should come.12

The individual elder is left largely to the guidance of the spirit of his calling, with which he should be imbued. If he fail to cultivate that spirit, which is the spirit of energy and application, he will soon become torpid, indolent and unhappy. Every missionary should strive to devote part of each day to study and prayerful thought on the principles of the gospel and the theology of the Church. He should read and reflect and pray. True, we are opposed to the preparing of set sermons to be delivered with the thought of oratorical effect and rhetorical display; yet when an elder arises to address a congregation at home or abroad, he should be thoroughly prepared for his sermon. His mind should be well stored with thoughts worth uttering, worth hearing, worth remembering; then the spirit of inspiration will bring forth the truths of which his auditors are in need, and give to his words the ring of authority.13

It is to be earnestly recommended that elders abroad on missions, as indeed Latter-day Saints in general, avoid contentious argument and debate regarding doctrinal subjects. The truth of the gospel does not depend for its demonstration on heated discussion; the message of truth is most effectively delivered when expressed in words of simplicity and sympathy.

… A testimony of the truth is more than a mere assent of the mind, it is a conviction of the heart, a knowledge that fills the whole soul of its recipient.

Missionaries are sent forth to preach and teach the first principles of the gospel, Christ and him crucified, and practically nothing more in the way of theological doctrine. They are not commissioned to expound their own views on intricate questions of theology, nor to mystify their hearers with a show of profound learning. Teachers they are and must be, if they meet in any degree the responsibilities of their high calling; but they should teach as nearly as they can after the manner of the Master—seeking to lead by love for their fellows, by simple explanation and persuasion; not trying to convince by force.

Brethren, leave these themes of profitless discussion alone; keep closely to the teachings of the revealed word, as made plain in the standard works of the Church and through the utterances of the living prophets; and let not a difference of views on abstruse matters of doctrine absorb your attention, lest thereby you become estranged from one another and separated from the Spirit of the Lord.14

Missionary service is as necessary at home as it is abroad.

It is a pity that after so many of our boys who go abroad and fill good missions return home, they should be apparently dropped or ignored by the presiding authorities of the Church and be permitted to drift away again into carelessness and indifference, and eventually, perhaps, to wander entirely away from their Church duties. They should be kept in the harness, they should be made active in the work of the ministry, in some way, that they may better keep the spirit of the gospel in their minds and in their hearts and be useful at home as well as abroad.

There is no question as to the fact that missionary service is required and is as necessary in Zion, or here at home, as it is abroad. We see too many boys that are falling into very careless, if not into pernicious, ways and habits. Every missionary boy who returns from his mission full of faith and good desire should take it upon himself to become a savior as far as possible of his young and less experienced associates at home. When a returned missionary sees a boy falling into bad ways and is becoming accustomed to bad habits, he should feel that it is his duty to take hold of him, in connection with the presiding authorities of the stake or of the ward in which he lives, and exercise all the power and influence he can for the salvation of that erring young man who has not the experience that our elders abroad have had, and thus become a means of saving many and of establishing them more firmly in the truth.15

One’s labor in the missionary field broadens his field of vision, vitalizes his energies, enlarges his capacity for good work in any direction and makes of him in every way a stronger and more useful citizen, as well as a more devoted member of the Church. While a missionary is actually engaged in the field he should be wholly a missionary, devoting the best of his energies to the special duties assigned him. When he returns to his home community he is still a missionary in the general sense; but he must remember that he has again taken his place in the ranks of the toilers, to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow. … Returned missionaries ought to be in demand where brave hearts, strong minds and willing hands are wanted. The genius of the gospel is not that of negative goodness—mere absence of what is bad; it stands for aggressive energy well directed, for positive goodness—in short, for work.16

As bearers and sowers of the precious seed of eternal life, let our lives correspond with our professions, our words be consonant with the truth we bear, and our acts agreeable to the revealed will of God; for [unless] these fruits do follow in some degree our professions of faith, we, as Elders or Saints, are only obstacles to the progress of the work, stumbling-blocks in the way of the practically-minded observer, and are not only not enhancing the prospects of the salvation of others, but are jeopardizing our own.17

Suggestions for Study

  • Why are “humility, meekness and love unfeigned” indispensable qualifications of missionaries? What other characteristics help elders and sisters become effective missionaries? (See also D&C 4.) How can similar characteristics help us be effective member missionaries?

  • Why is it vital that missionaries keep themselves “unspotted from the world”? How does the Lord bless those missionaries who do so?

  • How can we gain the confidence of our nonmember friends and neighbors and help them know that our “only desire is to do [them] good and bless [them]”? How can we more effectively share the gospel with our nonmember friends?

  • What truths should missionaries be prepared to teach?

  • What are the dangers of missionaries’ using argument, debate, and profitless discussion when teaching the gospel? Why is there greater power in teaching simply with the Spirit? (See D&C 100:5–8.)

  • How can a missionary cultivate “the spirit of his calling”? How can we as members obtain and cultivate the “spirit of energy and application” in sharing the gospel?

  • How can returned missionaries remain “in the harness”? What can Church leaders and other Church members do to help returned missionaries remain “active in the work of the ministry”? In what ways can a returned missionary “become a means of saving many and of establishing them more firmly in the truth”?


  1. George Albert Smith Papers, 1834–75, Historical Department Archives, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 3; spelling and punctuation modernized.

  2. Life of Joseph F. Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (1938), 183–84.

  3. Gospel Doctrine, 5th ed. (1939), 356.

  4. “Discourse by President Joseph F. Smith,” Millennial Star, 25 Oct. 1906, 674.

  5. Gospel Doctrine, 357.

  6. Gospel Doctrine, 355.

  7. Gospel Doctrine, 356.

  8. Gospel Doctrine, 373–74.

  9. Gospel Doctrine, 356–57.

  10. Gospel Doctrine, 357; paragraphing added.

  11. Gospel Doctrine, 358–59.

  12. “Discourse by President Joseph F. Smith,” Millennial Star, 19 Sept. 1895, 593.

  13. Gospel Doctrine, 363.

  14. Gospel Doctrine, 364.

  15. Gospel Doctrine, 369.

  16. “Counsel to Returning Missionaries,” Millennial Star, 2 Oct. 1913, 646–47.

  17. Life of Joseph F. Smith, 231–32.