In 1974, then Mormon prophet, President Spencer W. Kimball, issued a call to all young men of the LDS Church, calling them to serve full-time missions. Within a few years, the number of young men and women in the missionary service doubled. The enthusiastic growth didn’t stop there. Today, about 55,000 Mormon missionaries proselyte throughout the world.
Prophet Spencer W. Kimball’s call in 1974 didn’t mark the beginning of Mormon missionary efforts, however. Far from it. The missionary efforts of the LDS Church have had a long history. The first missionaries were sent out in 1830, scarcely after Joseph Smith had published the Book of Mormon and established the LDS Church. The very first missionary was Samuel Smith, Joseph Smith’s brother. Carrying newly printed Books of Mormon with him, Samuel began preaching in the regions of upstate New York. Although the area he covered was small, many important future leaders of the LDS Church were converted through Samuel Smith’s efforts. Among them was second President and Prophet of the Mormon Church, Brigham Young.
Samuel Smith was the first and, since his time, the LDS Church has continually sent out its missionaries to the world entire. Over one million missionaries have served the Church. Circumstances may be fierce, persecution severe, but the missionaries will preach the gospel. This fulfills Jeremiah’s prophecy:
“Behold, I will send for many fishers, saith the LORD, and they shall fish them; and after will I send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain, and from every hill, and out of the holes of the rocks” (Jeremiah 16:16).
Today, every worthy young man of the LDS Church is counseled to serve a mission, although it is not required. Worthy young women can also serve missions, and many do. “Mormon missionary” is not a paid position. In fact, a missionary and his or family are asked to pay their own way as far as possible. If the missionary is unable to pay because of extreme poverty, the members of the missionary’s home congregation, called a ward, will help out. Also, the LDS Church has set up a general fund to assist missionaries in need. These are both supposed to serve as last resorts, however. Indeed, many young Mormons prepare for the cost from a young age, saving money in a missionary fund.
When young men turn 19 (or 21 in the case of women), they can submit their names to the LDS Church to prepare for a mission. Their names will be prayerfully considered by Mormon leaders, including the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Through prayer and revelation, these leaders are able to determine where missionaries are needed. As of 2005, there were over 330 missions worldwide, ranging from Brazil to France to Japan, so the possibilities are wide. When the mission is decided, the leaders send the will-be missionary his or her assignment or “call.” This letter informs the missionary of where he will be serving. When the soon-to-be missionary receives the call, the whole family usually celebrates.
After receiving the call, the Mormon missionary reports to a Missionary Training Center, often abbreviated as MTC. There, the missionary will receive intensive language training, study the gospel, and learn how to teach the gospel to others. This training lasts only a few weeks before the new Mormon missionaries leave for their missions. Again, there are many missions, scattered throughout many nations.
Every mission is presided over by a Mission President. Most missions are large enough to be divided into zones and districts. The Mission President supervises the missionaries, and assigns them to work in various zones and districts. Each missionary is assigned a companion, since the Lord commanded his disciples to go forth in that way. In Mark 6:7, we read, “And he called [unto him] the twelve, and began to send them forth by two and two; and gave them power over unclean spirits;” Mormon missionaries do not have the same companion for their entire mission, however – they receive a new companion every four or five months.
Missionaries spend some of their time in the study of the holy scriptures, including the Bible and the Book of Mormon. They provide service to the community – such as cleaning city parks, teaching English, or even helping out their neighbors. Mormon missionaries are expected to devote at least 10 hours per week toward community service, though many do much more. Jesus Christ “went about doing good” (Acts 10:38) and the missionaries would follow His example.
But most of a Mormon missionary’s time is devoted to preaching the gospel to everyone they meet and to anyone who will listen. Sometimes, they will preach on the streets; sometimes, they will go knocking door to door, offering anyone who opens the opportunity to hear their message.
To serve a mission is to sacrifice. Mormon missionaries must spend two years (or in the case of female missionaries, eighteen months) away from their families and homes. Although they can send weekly letters to family and friends, the only times they can call home are on Christmas and Mother’s Day. Careers and schooling must be put on hold. But this sacrifice is richly rewarded by the joy these missionaries bring to themselves and to others. Many returned missionaries, sometimes called RMs by Mormons, report that their mission was the hardest, and most rewarding experience they have ever had.