What Mormon missions used to be like - a century ago

RPackham Dec. 2013

When my parents died, I (as the oldest child) inherited a lot of things that they had inherited from their parents. One item was my grandfather's mission journal, which recorded his experiences as a Mormon missionary in England, 1907-1908. I had never read it, but when my TBM [Mormon] brother found out that I had it, and wanted me to photocopy it for him, I decided to read it.

I remember my grandfather vaguely - when my folks got married and had me, they lived for a few years with my grandparents. He died when I was four. He had a wry sense of humor, which comes out sometimes in his journal.

I'm only about half-way through it, but I have noticed some interesting things that would be unusual or impossible for today's missionaries:

- there were no zone leaders or district leaders.
- he is often alone, his companion being somewhere else.
- lots of mornings he sleeps in.
- if the weather's bad, the missionaries stay home and write letters.
- he keeps track of how many tracts he hands out and how many books he sells, but doesn't appear to have to report to headquarters about how many discussions he has.
- several times he reports having a glass of wine at members' homes, often homemade.
- evenings are often spent playing cards or checkers, or going to a vaudeville show or play.
- he takes two weeks off at Christmas to visit his English relatives, without his companion.
- he does not mention anyone being converted or baptized during his first year (so far - maybe he'll have better success in the part I haven't read yet).
- sometimes the missionaries have to sleep three in a bed.
- he does not record any "faith-promoting" incidents.
- he does not discuss his own feelings about religion, or his testimony, although he often reports that he bore his testimony.

I suspect that my brother wants the journal to learn what a faithful Mormon our grandfather was. I have no doubt that he was indeed a faithful Mormon, but his journal is mostly about where he had tea, what he ate, who he visited, when he went to bed, when he got mail, and how long it took him to walk from one village to the next.

Re: What missions used to be like, a century ago
I've been reading more of my grandfather's journal, from 1908, and he is now reporting more of the actual religious discussions he is having with investigators.

One of the major topics is polygamy, and he is vigorously defending it. This is 18 years after the church said it was no longer practiced. Neither he nor anyone in his family was polygamous, but he is defending it!

His future father-in-law, whom he already knew well, was sealed posthumously to two deceased sisters, and the man's TBM wife was furious with him for doing so.

I doubt that missionaries nowadays try to defend polygamy.

Re: What missions used to be like, a century ago
That is the same time frame as when my ancestors join the cult. It sounds like the really weirdness started some time later. Perhaps in the 1950's.

Re: What missions used to be like, a century ago
These observations of your Grandfather's mission are fascinating. I grew up in an old pioneer town and it was way more relaxed than anything I found elsewhere in the church. My early life was more like your grandfather's journal which made the extremism of my mission and BYU such a shock.

Even in the fifties, I knew of a bishop who gave my great uncle a temple recommend even though he drank coffee. There was definitely a more sensible perspective.

Re: What missions used to be like, a century ago
A guy I once knew had been on the Turkish Mission in the early 1900s. He drank coffee. He drank wine. He moved between Greece and Armenia. It was 3 years long. He never saw his mission president. All converts left Armenia and Greece and emigrated to the US. He typed out a copy of the Book of Mormon in Greek, and maintained the manuscript for years, in spite of the fact that the Mormon church did not use it or consult it when they translated the Book of Mormon into Greek in the 1980s. He met with young apostle David O. McKay in 1921; McKay asked him to type out the recently included format of chapters, verses, and footnotes, which he painfully did. He left the church when they told him he could no longer drink coffee and remain in good standing.
Re: What missions used to be like, a century ago
What a great thing you have there. Your grandfather sounds like a pretty cool guy.

Re: What missions used to be like, a century ago
Wow. They were allow to be almost like completely free grown ups. I bet it helped them stay with this cult. My grandfather (Rulon Jeffs) told my grandmother that his mission pres (Early 20th Century) upset him because he wanted him to stay longer and he completely depleted his savings doing it.

Re: What missions used to be like, a century ago
Missions were certainly more casual back then than they are now.

In fact, one of my great-great grandfathers brought home a souvenir from his mission to England--a polygamous wife.

I bet his first wife & kids at home were thrilled to see him show up on the doorstep with a new sister wife in hand.

After reading some early missionary journals, I think it was actually not that uncommon for missionaries to bring back young, female converts with whom they would eventually wed as polygamous wives.

Re: What missions used to be like, a century ago
Reading early Mormon missionary journals can be really fascinating. Richard, ever think of scanning your grandfather's and putting it online?

Re: What missions used to be like, a century ago
Hell, you go far enough back, and it was common for church missionaries to carry snub nosed revolvers hidden under their coats. You never knew when you would have to shoot your way out of a situation, say like when the woman you are trying to make your third or fourth wife has her husband come home early.


This is an Avenging Angel revolver. It is a Mormon gun. Guy mentions it being used in Missouri and Illinois, but that model revolver wasn't in use until after the Mormons got kicked out of the state. These were guns carried by Mormon missionaries, that they were encouraged to purchase from the church.

Re: What missions used to be like, a century ago
My grandpa was there at the same time, or very near to it.

I've never read his journal but my grandpa did have a giant collection of post cards, the email of the time. My grandpa had a gf that was not my grandma, so one day when I was living with her for the summer she gave me his entire mission post card collection.

Things that were discussed: Pre-mission make out sessions, vacations during the mission, sports, and hardly anything about "the work of the lord." At one point he was the de facto mission president, and was giving people permissions to take vacations.

Re: What missions used to be like, a century ago

And they had senses of humour, as evidenced by missionaries sending each other the above post card.

Maybe we can get one of the First Presidency to tell us...
... what missions were like 60 years ago.

Oh, wait, never mind. I guess none of them would have a clue about missions since they didn't go.

Re: What missions used to be like, a century ago
The OP and this entire thread is fascinating. Very interesting!
Ten Bear
Re: What missions used to be like, a century ago
The early 1900s was before the Brethren started getting weird about the WOW. Back then, it was just that - words of "wisdom". Things to consider. But it wasn't a big stick used to beat the membership like it is now. Having a glass of wine with a prospect or member would have been normal.
My Dad told me they were allowed to swim on his mission. Gulf States, 1950s
Mormon Matt
Re: What missions used to be like, a century ago
Have at it...


Re: What missions used to be like, a century ago
Very interesting, thank you for sharing. As you continue reading, I would love to hear about more highlights and interesting facts about your grandfather's mission if you don't mind sharing.

Missionaries to Denmark - same time frame
Family tradition has it that a great-grand uncle who went to Denmark on a mission about that same time smoked cigars until he boarded the ship from the U.S.

My grandparents grew up in small towns in Utah and drank wine, beer, and coffee and considered themselves to be good, active members. They said that the WOW didn't become an issue until George Albert Smith became President, but there is also the contention that the WOW became a replacement for polygamy as a doctrine to divide LDS life-style from the Gentile world.

I didn't have a lot of faith-promoting material, so I stopped writing.
I believe I had applied the rules of testimony meetings (share only what's faith-promoting) to journals. It felt phony, so I stopped. In hindsight I wish I had the cajones to write exactly what was on my mind.

My mission wasn't all mundane. It was fun to hang out with peers. There was a lot of horseplay and tomfoolery, e.g. squirt gun fights, moving all the furniture to one side of the livingroom to play marbles, practical jokes, flirting with sister missionaries, etc. Of course there was a lot of B.S. too like bloviating MPs who were all full of themselves and some of the missionaries were downrigh a-holes. All in all it was a mixed bag - kind of like life!

As far as faith-promoting experiences go, we were very ready to see and experience the things we were primed to see, and they happened in very limited doses. But that was good enough (got a testimony, now I can check that off my list). Then it was back to more fun mixed with the mundane.

Re: What missions used to be like, a century ago
I have seen some rare 'sensible' Bishops in my time. In the 70s a friend of mine was called to teach Primary. When she told the Bishop that she smoked he said "I would rather have a smoker teaching the children than a hypocrite who leaves the stand after sacrament meeting and goes to visit his mistress". When she said would feel bad if the kids kenw she smoked he said "Well perhaps that will help you to quit, but in the meantime you have a lot to offer and we sould like you to do so, the churh needs good people like you". I really supported his stand, she was a lovely lady, with a non member husband and a good heart.

Another Bishop told one of the Mia Maids in my class that when her non-member father wanted her to do something with him on a Sunday she should go, and not think of it as breaking the sabbath. She came to tell me she was going to go skiing with her father the next Sunday and would not be in my class and she would miss that. I hugged her and told her she was doing the right thing and that I was proud of her.

SO there WAS some sanity amidst the madness, even if it was rare.

That is my experience anyway.

The 1950s. Are you kidding me?
It was always the really weirdness. Or did you mean the really weirdness pertaining specifically to missionaries?

Re: What missions used to be like, a century ago
My grandfather went around the same time as yours. His journal is where he went, what he ate, and a record of every penny spent. The saddest thing though, is that grandpa's father and step-mother stopped sending him money, and he was too embarrassed to tell anyone, eventually having no money for food or expenses. The mission president had to contact his parents because he was in a really bad way.

Re: What missions used to be like, a century ago
Thanks RPackham! I had my grandfather's journal when I served my mission. He served in the 1920's in New Zealand.

He died about 15 years before I was born.

His journal was so boring. The main thing he wrote about. Tea. Everyday. Nothing "spiritual" at all.

Also he left on his mission when my grandmother was just pregnant with their first child. And it seemed to have lasted for about 2 1/2 years.

Cali Sally
Re: What missions used to be like, a century ago
This is a bit of a twist on your original topic but my grandmother was not Mormon and was born and raised near Kirtland, OH. My mother and I were converts. According to my mother, grandmother would tell stories about going to the Mormons and preaching to them in order to show them the error of their religion. When my grandmother learned that my mother and I had joined the Mormon church she was very disappointed. I'm not sure my mother understood what her mother was telling her about her experiences with Mormonism or if she got the Reorganized church mixed-up with the main LDS faith. Whatever happened, I never knew my grandmother knew anything about Mormonism until after we joined. I wish now I had talked to her about growing up in Kirtland and what she had been taught about Mormonism as a child.

Very interesting. Thanks. 

"Recovery from Mormonism - www.exmormon.org"