Missionaries in Church History
June 1973

“Missionaries in Church History,” New Era, June 1973, 62

Special Issue:
Missionary Work

Missionaries in Church History

Brigham Young wrote in his journal:

“I started from Montrose on my mission to England. My health was so poor I was unable to go thirty rods to the river without assistance. After I had crossed the river I got Israel Barlow to carry me on his horse behind him to Heber C. Kimball’s, where I remained sick till the 18th. I left my wife sick with a babe only ten days old, and all my children sick and unable to wait upon each other. …”1

An economist could hardly condone the decision of Brigham Young to leave his family in such dire conditions to go off to England as a missionary. An economist learns to make decisions on the basis of what might be called a prudential value system, that is, a value system in which one counts the costs, compares them with the benefits, and follows that course of action for which the rewards are greatest. He makes a cost-benefit analysis and justifies his actions not by appeal to past authority or to previously formulated principles but by their expected future effects. The ethic is sensible and rational. We have come to respect it as a good system by which to make decisions.

By this ethic, though, Brigham Young’s action seems ill-considered, if not totally unjustifiable. Had he relied on the evidence of a cost-benefit analysis, he would likely not have gone on a mission at all: the cost in certain pain and possible death seemed to far outweigh the benefit in uncertain conversions in a far-off land.

There is another ethic, though, that can justify such seemingly irrational actions as this of Brigham Young. It operates on a personal level; it is an expression of individual identity, a sort of highly motivated “doing your own thing.” It lets you do what you do because of what you are, not because of calculated benefits you might expect. It promises little but work and danger and sacrifice, sometimes, but it justifies the deeds of heroism, of inherent truth, and of true nobility that typify the lives of great men and women.

It is on the basis of motivation like this—motivation that refuses to consider cost or anticipate benefits—that most missionaries determine to go on missions. Certainly it was so with Brigham Young and many of the early missionaries. But the ethic that determined their actions remains so much the same that missionaries and prospective missionaries today can look to them for models.

Take, for example, Joseph F. Smith, the father of our past prophet Joseph Fielding Smith, and the president of the Church during the early years of this century. Joseph F.’s father was Hyrum Smith who had been killed in Carthage Jail with the Prophet Joseph. Even so, though a cost-benefit ethic might have dictated he stay to look after his sister, Joseph F. volunteered for a mission. He was called to Hawaii, or the Sandwich Islands as they were then called. When he arrived there, he learned that the missionaries before him had almost completely given up on trying to teach the gospel. They were unsuccessful with the haole, the whites, and as far as the kanakas, the natives, they could neither learn their difficult language, nor did they perceive the natives as good Church members. Joseph, however, was young enough to learn the language of the natives and to see behind the unfamiliar customs of the Hawaiians the sweet spirits they possessed. He writes how he “felt resolved to stay there, master the language, and warn the people of these islands, if I have to do it alone.”2

Joseph did learn the language and did preach to the Hawaiians, and in the process he received a spiritual renewal. Within a few months of his arrival in Hawaii, he wrote back to a relative in Salt Lake City:

“I know that the work in which I am engaged is the work of the living and true God, and I am ready to bear my testimony of the same at any time, or at any place, or in whatsoever circumstances I may be placed.”3

When he wrote that, he could not have known the strange “circumstance” in which he would find himself. The warehouse in which he and others of the missionaries stored their clothes caught fire. All their clothing except what they were wearing was destroyed. For a time Joseph and his companion had only one respectable suit between them, so one of them had to stay in bed while the other put on the suit and went to meeting!4

The old missionary joke about an elder’s having to lose either his girl or his hair as one of the “costs” of his mission may have some basis in the warm and humorous story told by another of the great and valiant servants in the early Church, Heber C. Kimball. Brother Kimball was bald, even when he was young. People used to tease him about his baldness, and once he explained how he lost his hair. It seems that shortly after he joined the Church, while still a very young man, he was called on a mission to Nova Scotia. He traveled the entire 1500 miles from his home in New York on foot, with his valise on his back.

“Soon after I started, I found that I was rather unlearned, though I knew that before, but I knew it better after I started. I began to study the Scriptures … and I had so little knowledge that exercise of study began to swell my head and open my pores insomuch that the hairs dropped out; and if you will let your minds expand as mine did you will have no hair on your heads.”5

Another of the great missionaries of the Church, who later became an apostle, was Parley P. Pratt. In 1830 Parley was twenty-three and serving as a missionary in Ohio. While in the course of his travels he was arrested falsely and taken to court. Ordered to pay a heavy fine, he had no money, so the judge committed him to prison. It was late at night, and there was not time enough to travel to the prison, which was several miles away, so Parley was taken by an officer to a hotel to spend the night. After the night’s rest and breakfast, he was taken to the public square by the escorting officer, Mr. Peabody, ready to be taken to prison. Here is the episode as Parley told it:

“Said I, ‘Mr. Peabody, are you good at a race?’ ‘No,’ said he, ‘but my big bulldog is, and he has been trained to assist me in my office these several years; he will take any man down at my bidding.’ ‘Well, Mr. Peabody, you compelled me to go a mile. I have gone with you two miles. You have given me an opportunity to preach, sing, and have also entertained me with lodging and breakfast. I must now go on my journey; if you are good at a race you can accompany me. I thank you for all your kindness—good day, sir.’”

Parley then took off on a dead run. By the time Mr. Peabody had gotten over his astonishment and was able to stir himself to action, Parley had covered 200 yards, leaped a fence, and was running through a field to the forest. The officer came hallooing after him and sent his huge dog to seize him. The dog overtook Parley in due time and was about to grab him, when Parley, in a moment of inspiration, reached out his arm and pointed in the direction of the forest, all the while imitating the officer by yelling “Stu-Boy.”

“The dog hastened past me with redoubled speed towards the forest; being urged by the officer and myself, and both of us running in the same direction. Gaining the forest, I soon lost sight of the officer and dog, and have not seen them since.”6

No one could have warned Parley Pratt of the danger his mission might place him in, but once there he didn’t fail to see the humor of his situation and turn what could have been a “cost” into a “benefit” in an experience to be enjoyed in retrospect.

Wilford Woodruff, too, could see humor winking at him through the hardships of his mission. He writes of his experience in January of 1830 when he was twenty-seven years old. He and his companion walked sixty miles in two days, without food. On the first day they were confronted by a bear, lost their way, were followed by wolves, and finally, late at night, reached a cabin where they were given nothing to eat, though they were allowed to sleep on the floor. That, writes Elder Woodruff, was “the hardest day’s work of my life.” The next morning they walked twelve miles in the rain to the house of a man who, they discovered, had been in the mob that drove the Saints from their homes in Jackson County, Missouri, a year earlier. As they reached the cabin, the man’s family were sitting down to breakfast. To read from Elder Woodruff’s account:

“In those days it was the custom of the Missourians to ask you to eat even though they were hostile to you, so he asked us to take breakfast. … He knew we were Mormons; and as soon as we began to eat, he began to swear about the Mormons. He had a large platter of bacon and eggs, and plenty of bread on the table, and his swearing did not hinder our eating, for the harder he swore the harder we ate, until we got our stomachs full; then we arose from the table, took our hats, and thanked him for our breakfast. The last we heard of him he was still swearing. I trust the Lord will reward him for our breakfast.”7

A final example of the dedication that acts on the basis of this ethic rather than on the suggestion of a cost-benefit analysis is found in the life of Matthew Cowley. He had been attending the Latter-day Saint University in Salt Lake City, but as he finished his freshman year, he decided he did not want to return to school the next year; he wanted to go on a mission instead. He was only seventeen years old, but he was called and was soon on his way to New Zealand to work with the Maoris.

In his diary Elder Cowley tells how his best companions there were fleas, since they so faithfully stayed close to him. Here is one entry from that diary:

“After Karakia (prayer) was held in the evening, I went to my room, and before going to bed I fortified myself against the fleas. I rubbed flea powder all over my body and put a layer of it in the bed. I trust that will stupefy them. … On arising and looking in the bed [the next morning], I found the carcasses of a multitude of fleas, and it made me feel like Napoleon to be the victor of such a battle.”8

Elder Cowley had to learn the language from scratch, of course, and during the first three months he was without a companion. He went to a grove every morning at six o’clock to study the gospel and the language and to fast and pray. There he would remain for eleven hours each day. Within three months he was able to stand before a group of natives and preach the gospel in their tongue, and, as he says, “There was a burning in my bosom the like of which I have never felt before or since in my life.”

It seems quite obvious, on the basis of their experiences, that these missionaries did not make their decisions on the basis of a prudential value system, for baldness, fleas, and hunger could not have persuaded any of them to leave their homes and families. And yet a decision to fill a mission could comply even with the rigors of a cost-benefit analysis if one were to follow the method described by Parley P. Pratt.

A year before the experience related above took place, before he had even heard of the Latter-day Saints, Parley was newly married, had a fifty-acre farm, comfortable house, productive orchard, and beautiful garden. But he sensed something lacking. He studied the Bible and wanted to know more; there must be a restoration of the gospel, he believed. He did not know that it had already occurred but decided to leave his farm and his home to search for the true Church. His older brother William remonstrated with him. “How will you live?” he asked. Parley said he had enough bank notes to sustain himself and his family. These notes, he said, were “founded on capital that will never fail, though heaven and earth should pass away.” His brother asked to see them. Parley records:

“I then unlocked my treasury and drew from thence a large pocket book, full of promissory notes like the following: ‘Whosoever shall forsake father or mother, brethren or sister, houses or lands, wife or children, for my sake and the gospel’s, shall receive an hundred fold in this life, and in the world to come life everlasting.’ ‘If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, you shall ask what you will in my name and I will give it you.’ ‘All things are possible to him that believeth.’”9

Parley then asked his brother if these were genuine notes, if the “signer” of the notes, the Lord Jesus Christ, was able and willing to meet his promises. “Yes” was the only reply William could give. So in August of 1830 Parley settled his affairs, and with ten dollars in his pocket, took his wife and set out in search of the kingdom of God.

He discovered, as all missionaries can, that the Lord does pay off his notes.

I am grateful to Maureen Ursenbach, editor of the Historical Department of the Church and to Brad Morris, a student at Utah State University, for help in preparing this.


  1. “Brigham Young’s History,” Millennial Star, XXV (October 3, 1863), 646.

  2. Joseph Fielding Smith, Life of Joseph F. Smith (Salt Lake City, 1938), p. 170.

  3. Ibid., p. 176.

  4. Ibid., pp. 183–4.

  5. Sermon of September 28, 1856, Journal of Discourses (26 vol., Liverpool, 1854–1886), IV, 107.

  6. Parley P. Pratt, Autobiography of Parley Parker Pratt (Salt Lake City, 1966), pp. 50–51.

  7. Matthias F. Cowley, ed., Wilford Woodruff: History of His Life and Labors (Salt Lake City, 1909), p. 50; “History of Wilford Woodruff,” Deseret News, July 7, 1858, p. 82.

  8. Henry A. Smith, Matthew Cowley: Man of Faith (Salt Lake City, 1954), p. 48.

  9. Autobiography, pp. 50–51.

Joseph F. Smith; Wilford Woodruff; Heber C. Kimball; Brigham Young; Parley P. Pratt; Matthew Cowley

Wilford Woodruff; Joseph F. Smith; Brigham Young