We sometimes hear stories about Mormon missionaries who are confronted with angry people. We praise the missionaries for suffering for Christ like the apostles of old. We condemn the iniquity of those who loathe the messengers of the Lord.
I am going to take up some perspectives of those angry people—because of my mother and others I’ve known over the years. And thousands I do not know.
In other churches, missiology experts have been studying at length this topic of tensions, conflicts, and social damage resulting from Western missionizing, including the ethical issue of intra-Christian proselytism. We Mormons seem to ignore it or do not want to be confronted with it. But with the surge in our missionary numbers and the insistence to “hasten the work”, the topic is acute.
But first, my mother.
A former cloister novice who ultimately chose marriage and motherhood, she raised me, her only son, with a deep love for education, languages, and Catholic-faith commitment. Our region, Flanders, has been intrinsically Catholic for more than a thousand years. My mother guided the ritual and communal steps, inherited from her parents and forebears, in a family sphere imbued with the tokens of tradition—the sign of the cross before meals, Pater Nosters and Ave Marias, a crucifix in nearly each room, the telling of Bible stories with images from Flanders’ rich Christian art patrimony, the missals taken to Sunday mass with readings from the Gospels and the Epistles, retreats to prepare for First and for Holy Communion, processions, fasts at Lent, candles at the appropriate occasions, and more. Her brother was a lifelong priest-missionary in Africa and one of her aged great-aunts a Poor Clare behind cloister walls. The side branches of our ancestry lines were dotted with nuns and clergymen. Each year’s cycle was punctuated by the numerous “holy days” on the calendar, which had become the civil holidays, celebrating one by one all major events in Christ’s life. I am not going to say that our little family was passionately Catholic, but Catholicism was simply part of the time-honored texture of life.
Then, at age 17, in the freeing fever of adolescence, I happened to meet two Mormon missionaries. They joked, they taught, they prayed, and my instant testimony of the Restored Gospel washed away my ancestral legacy. I wanted to be baptized a Mormon.
My mother’s reaction was visceral. This was a child’s abduction. This was the utter ruin of her son’s future and her own lifework. In the depth of her despair she fought with guilt. What had she done wrong? Why did she deserve this punishment? She felt shamed before family, friends, and fellow parishioners. And there was anger, deep anger toward those juvenile strangers with their naive arrogance who had forced their way into our peaceful realm and had broken our sacred family binding.
She did not yet know she would not be allowed to attend my wedding in years to come. Nor hold her baby granddaughter above the baptistery. Though by the end of her life she seemed to accept the course my life had taken, the grief never came to rest.
Perhaps a Mormon mother from pioneer stock can understand. Envision when years of patient and true-to-the-faith steps toward a son’s eternal future—home evenings, family prayers, blessings, church meetings, Primary, baptism, priesthood ordinations, passing the sacrament, blessing it, attending seminary, mission, temple marriage, and the delightful recurrence of the cycle in grandchildren—are brutally halted mid-way. Because at age 17 this Mormon boy decides to join, for example, some obscure Indian sect after meeting some of its young emissaries.
The irony is that a Mormon mother sends out her missionary son as a way to strengthen his commitment to the faith, even if it means breaking the hearts of other mothers in distant places.
For the rather flippant missionaries who taught me at the time, my mother was just a frustrating obstacle.
This tragedy has unfolded thousands of times across the world. It is unfolding today in numerous settings, multiplied by the increase of our missionaries. I think we need to give it proper attention.
1 – First of all, converting to Mormonism does not necessarily lead to familial or social conflicts. Much depends on local and personal circumstances. In some countries religious diversity and mobility make a church-change fairly acceptable. Also, secularization and the loss of religious traditions facilitate, paradoxically, the switchover to new churches, in particular in those nations where ecclesiastical monopolies have crumbled. Some families may even be pleased that one of their members adopts Mormonism for its protective spirituality, its moral norms, and its communal dedication, if not for the attractive American connection. There are also the cases where initial opposition makes way for acceptance and may lead to more conversions, finally creating a strong and happy Mormon family.
2 – However, in many countries, communities, or families, the conversion to Mormonism can be highly unsettling, as it fractures familial, religious, and cultural homogeneity. We lack precise data as to the frequency and intensity of such conflicts, but we can safely say they are numerous, as converts, local leaders, and missionaries can testify. Converting to Mormonism has a tremendous impact on time commitment, lifestyle, and family traditions. Quite a few converts are the only members of their families to become Mormons, thus accentuating the rift with relatives. Even if a nuclear family gets baptized together, they usually still have their older parents and others in the extended family to consider, the traditions of which may weigh heavily on interpersonal relations. In addition, tensions are often exacerbated by the fact that Mormonism is tarnished in the media and by anti-cult organizations.
3 – Should we accept familial conflicts as normal in missionary work? Scriptural support for accepting—even expecting—such resistance appear in the New Testament: “I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law” (Matt. 10:34-35). Or “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). But what if each side in the controversy is a disciple of Christ in his or her own way? And even if the opponent is not a disciple, how do we reconcile these verses with Christ’s core message of charity, as well as with the Church’s emphasis on family love and harmony?
4 – A convert may expect to suffer. As Joseph Smith taught, “a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has the power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation” (Lecture 6, verse 7). But does it justify making innocent others suffer because of one’s choice for Mormonism? Moreover, the inflicted pain can last for years, even decades. Take the case of a young couple I got to know fifty years ago. The wife had allowed the missionaries to come in. They taught the couple, but only the husband committed to conversion. He served for the rest of his life in numerous church capacities while paying tithing. For decades, their married life was one of constant quarrels over his frequent absences, Sundays in separation, and their lack of money. Now a widow, living on a meager pension, the embittered woman continues to bemoan the day she let the missionaries in. Part-member families as a result of missionary work often carry such continuous pain.
5 – Article 18.3 of the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states: “Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.” The same wording is in other international Declarations. The origin of this restriction is found in history: too many nations have been torn apart by religious strife, and many still are. Proselytism by a foreign entity can be perceived as assaulting the core identity of a nation or of an ethnoreligious group. Such religious intruders are seen as nuisances that try to drive a wedge in one’s prime authenticity. In some countries where several religions co-exist in a delicate balance, conversions are considered betrayals of the worst kind, often severely punishable. Other countries view proselytism as threatening political stability. Those various perceptions underlie the restrictions on proselytizing that currently prevail in countries such as Israel, Greece, Eritrea, China, and many Muslim nations. The Church, obedient to the law, respects those restrictions scrupulously. However, in situations where proselytism and conversions can cause familial and social harm but where no legal restrictions exist, the Church still proceeds assertively.
This is not the place to argue the rights of one group to preach and to expand its membership as part of “religious liberty” versus the right of another to protect its unity and stability. The purpose here is only to explain the source of sometimes severe private and public animosity toward Mormon missionaries.
6 – In his analysis of proselytism versus rights, Tad Stahnke mentions the rights of the targets of proselytism “to be protected from injury to their religious feelings and to maintain their religious identity.” Missionary work can indeed injure the feelings of others, especially if these others are devoted to their own religion and genuinely engaged in doing good. The account of the First Vision contains the declaration, attributed to Christ, that other churches “were all wrong” and “all their creeds were an abomination”. No matter how we try to soften the harshness of this condemnation or interpret the words somewhat differently, the missionaries are instructed to teach that other churches do “not have the fullness of truth or the priesthood authority to baptize and perform other saving ordinances” (Preach My Gospel, p. 37). Such a message can be highly offensive, if not blasphemous, to people of other faiths. In some countries it explains laws against “blasphemy” or “religious insult” , comparable to the unacceptability of racist utterances.
7 – Mormon missionaries are totally unprepared to deal with these conflicts. Preach My Gospel mentions the topic only three times and very briefly.
(a) An example is given of a Brother Snider who is “deeply concerned about how his family would react to his joining another church.” It suffices that the elders have him read 3 Nephi 11 and the man decides that “I had better do what He wants me to do” (p. 113). Problem solved.
(b) The manual suggests that missionaries “share ideas” about the following situation: Investigator Steve is ready for baptism, but “his family members are devout Catholics and do not approve of his meetings with the missionaries” (p. 153). The “ideas” to solve the problem are left to the imagination of inexperienced 19-year-olds who are driven by one goal: to baptize.
(c) The manual mentions that “investigators might fear opposition from family members if they join the Church.” The advice is: “Determine whether the concern has come up because the person does not have a spiritual confirmation of the truth of the Restoration or whether the person does not want to commit to living a true principle . . . Focus on testimony or commitment” (p. 187). The issue is thus not only not addressed, but the cause of the concern is imputed solely to a lack of faith or to a refusal to commit to one of the commandments.
As a result, Preach My Gospel seems indifferent to the heartbreak of others. It does not help the missionaries to understand and handle the turmoil they can trigger in families and in the surrounding society. Though most missionaries do remarkably well for their age and background, there is also something very troubling in allowing immature and keyed up young people to upset lives in faraway families—in sometimes hurtful ways that may take years, even decades, to heal, if the wounds ever heal.
8 – Another form of anger, usually more inner but also sadder, often moves within those who accepted baptism but then discover the promised joy to be elusive. “Accepting the gospel” in the thrill of missionary lessons and spiritual experiences is followed by the exigencies of church life and perhaps by continuing challenges with family and environment. Roughly half of the converts turn “inactive” within a year, many of them within weeks. The reasons for defection are varied, but are mostly tied to disappointment and to feelings of having been misled or rushed to baptism. President Gordon B. Hinckley noted:
Nobody gains when there is baptism without retention. The missionary loses, and while the Church gains statistically, the membership suffers, really, and the enthusiasm of the convert turns to ashes. (…) Actual harm may be done to those who leave old friendships and old ways of doing things only to be allowed to slip into inactivity. (…) What does it profit the missionary to baptize someone who leaves the Church within six months? Nothing is accomplished; in fact, damage is done.
Even more painful are those who leave after many years of toiling for the Church—sometimes with angry feelings of having been bled dry in unrelenting service, or of having been betrayed by lack of information pertaining to church history or doctrine, or of having paid tithing to a Utah church which, as they discover in their view, is loaded with American right-wing dominance or LGBT intolerance. Defection from a church they served so intensely can be a harrowing process. Converts will always remember that their involvement started with two missionaries, but ultimately led to feelings either of grief and regret, or of enduring gratitude for the meaning the gospel and the church gave to their life. This latter group should not be forgotten—but Church magazines and Public Affairs ensure the visibility of that bright side abundantly.
This post focuses on the darker side. Our young missionaries seldom realize the depth of that hidden dimension. The puerile content of missionary blogs is revealing in that respect. Moreover, missionaries do not face the long-term consequences of their actions. They soon return home. Their homecoming talk may even include a story of how a valiant convert prevailed over family opposition and how the “iniquity” of those who raged against missionaries did not deter the work of the Lord.
Can we shrug off all this anger and sadness as unavoidable “collateral damage” in a rhetoric of militant missionizing? Some members do shrug it off or coldly calculate that with a final remnant of 20 to 30% active members among converts, the church is still growing. But, as President Hinckley reminds us, the statistical gain does not justify the suffering and the damage done.
What could be changed? I have no easy, ready-made answers. Many aspects and variables play a role when one reads missiology studies pertaining to other churches. For Mormon proselytizing, these aspects could include:
– Missionary selection and preparation (maturity? social aptitude? context insight? awareness of conversion consequences?)
– The determination of appropriate targets of proselytism (Must we convert other believers? Enter countries or situations where we are not welcome? Or rather let people themselves initiate contact?)
– The suitability of a market model in missionary programming (Is religion commerce? What kind of mentality drives some mission presidents?)
– Strategies and content (Is Preach My Gospel always adequate? Should missionaries first immerse themselves for months in the country and culture before even thinking of preaching?)
– The time needed to adequately prepare converts (Who assesses readiness and how?)
– The handling of opposing family members (How to understand the issues? How to show empathy? How to monitor? How to preserve or restore harmony? How to apply the “Proclamation” of the family as it extols its love and unity, while warning against its disintegration? )
– The difference between gospel and church in the “Mormonization” of converts (How does conversion to the gospel—bringing people to Christ—transition into conversion to the Church and its programs and demands? Are the costs of membership bearable in some countries or situations? How radical must rejection of familial or cultural traditions be?)
– And any other related aspect.
Thoughtful comments are welcome.
 Tad Stahnke, “Proselytism and the Freedom to Change Religion in International Human Rights Law,” Brigham Young University Law Review, vol. 1999, n° 1 (1999), 254.
 Cited in David G. Stewart, Jr., The Law of the Harvest: Practical Principles of Effective Missionary Work, 2007, §3.13.