Mission Implausible

The mission of Mormon missionaries is clear: Spread the Word and sprinkle it with testimony.

But while the 60,000-plus elders and sisters worldwide may stick to the straight and narrow on doctrine, they sometimes veer off course and relay faith-promoting stories that sound true — but rarely are.

Missionary Fables
The rough crowd

An LDS missionary struggles to speak to a group on the street. The crowd jeers him until he’s almost in tears, then a fellow stands up, addresses the throng in a commanding voice and quiets the hecklers. The missionary proceeds to give a fine speech. Afterward, the grateful elder seeks out the stranger to thank him, but the man has vanished.

The bread in the towel

A starving LDS missionary has nothing to eat, so he prays. After saying “amen,” a man approaches and gives him a piece of bread covered with a towel. The missionary scarfs down the bread and saves the towel.

Upon returning home months later, his wife sees the towel and asks him how he got it. He relates the story.

She tells him that on the same day he received the bread and towel, a hungry stranger came to her door and asked her for a slice of bread. The only bread she had was a fresh loaf that she gave to him wrapped in a towel.

The narrow path

Two LDS missionaries walking down a narrow path come across two Jehovah’s Witnesses in the opposite direction.

“We won’t step aside for teachers of false doctrine,” the Jehovah’s Witnesses say.

“Well, we will,” the Mormons reply as they step aside.

The priest in the graveyard

Two LDS missionaries walking through a graveyard encounter a Roman Catholic priest, who says to them: “You, sons of the devil.”

The missionaries reply: “Good morning, father.”

The water fight

A rude man pours water on two LDS missionaries then says, “I hear you believe in baptism by immersion.”

One of the elders, a strapping young man, punches the man. “Yeah, but we also believe in the laying on of hands,” he replies. —

A rude man pours water on two missionaries.

“I hear you believe in baptism by immersion,” he says.

One of the elders, a strapping young man, punches the man. “Yeah, but we also believe in the laying on of hands,” he replies.

So what in the name of Paul H. Dunn is going on?

It’s called folklore, says retired Brigham Young University humanities professor William Wilson. Missionaries are the “folk,” and their tales are the “lore.”

“We are a great storytelling people, and missionaries probably are the greatest storytellers of all,” says Wilson, a folklorist who has cataloged more than 5,000 stories.

Try this whopper on for size:

Two sister missionaries knock on a door. A man answers and brusquely asks them to leave. Later, the missionaries are at a post office and see a wanted poster of the same man. Turns out, he is a serial rapist.

The missionaries call police who quickly collar the fugitive. Asked why he didn’t attack the pair like he had so many other women, the rapist replies:

“Because of the three burly men dressed in armor and carrying swords who stood behind them.”

The missionaries, it seems, were protected by three ancient apostles who, according to Mormon scripture, walk the Earth doing good deeds. That reference is obvious to any believing Mormon. Problem is, the story is tall on tale and short on truth.

But many missionaries accept such yarns as gospel. They heard it from someone they trust who heard it from so-and-so who heard it from so-and-so — so what’s not to believe?

“There’s a common misconception about folklore that it’s false,” says D. Glenn Ostlund, a doctoral candidate at the University of Indiana who served an LDS mission in Japan. “So when someone hears a story . . . and says, ‘I know of someone that happened to,’ well, maybe they do.”

Unlike Dunn — the late LDS general authority whose bread-and-butter sermons were liberally leavened with goose-bump-giving exaggerations — missionaries seldom star in their own stories. Instead, they merely pass along the hand-me-down tales, which have been through more alterations than missionary suits and seen more wear than their missionary shoes.

Folklorists see nothing novel about missionary stories. All sorts of groups — cops, firefighters, Boy Scouts — spin tales. What makes LDS missions an especially fertile field for folklore is that elders and sisters don’t punch out at the end of the day. A missionary is always a missionary.

“Missionaries are what folklorists call a very high-context group,” BYU English professor Jill Terry Rudy says. “No matter where they serve, they basically are on the same schedule and there is a lot of continuity in what they do every day. With that amount of continuity, missionaries develop common stories and language that are shared between missions.”

That’s why many missionary yarns have a familiar ring. The same stories, with minor changes, are told across the globe.

For instance, Adam Ingersoll swore that the rapist story happened in his Paraguay mission, until he heard an altered version in an LDS film.

“My senior companion told me about it and I believed him,” the University of Utah freshman says. “Then I saw ‘Singles Ward’ and said, ‘Oh, my heck.’ “

Another missionary standard is the “unauthorized trip.”

Justin Mortensen, a U. sophomore who served a mission in Japan, heard that it happened to two elders in a neighboring mission. The young men, so the story goes, decided to break mission rules by traveling to Taiwan for some R&R.

“But they send in their reports [to the mission office] out of sequence and get caught,” Mortensen recalls.

Wait a minute, says Ryan Brown, who heard a similar story during his mission in Fresno, Calif. But instead of Taiwan, two stateside elders drove to Salt Lake City to attend General Conference.

“The TV cameras zoom in on the two elders and their mission president watching General Conference back in California sees them,” says Brown, a U. biology major. “When they arrive back in the mission, the president is waiting for them with two plane tickets.”

Their mission is over.

Wilson uncovered a similar story in an old Smithsonian magazine. Instead of LDS missionaries, the protagonists were students who escaped the academic rigors of Harvard University in the late 1800s with a covert trip to Jamaica but got caught. Wilson says most LDS folklore isn’t original.

“In the final analysis, these aren’t Mormon stories at all,” Wilson says. “They are floating stories that move around and attach to different cultures and different groups. . . . I always say folklore is adopted and then adapted.”

Folklorists say the stories endure and endear because they fill basic needs. The rapist story, for instance, reinforces missionaries’ belief that the Lord looks after them. That gives solace to young missionaries who often run into very real dangers.

The “unauthorized trip” story serves as a cautionary tale, Wilson says, reminding missionaries to obey the rules and remain in their assigned areas.

“But the main reason it gets told is that most missionaries delight in that story. It’s kind of like you’d never have the guts to do that yourself, but you’d admire someone who would,” Wilson explains. “Before their missions, many missionaries roamed the countryside in their father’s automobile. Then they get stuck in a little town and are told they can’t leave without permission. That’s really hard.”

Wayward missionary tales are especially popular for stressed-out elders and sisters looking to let off a little steam. So are what Wilson calls “ecclesiastical misapplication” stories.

U. student Chad Osman, for example, enjoys the doozy he heard in Winnipeg, Canada, about a sacrilegious elder baptizing a cat, ordaining it to the priesthood and then getting struck by lightning.

Adam Clark, who proselytized in Toronto, recalls a story about a missionary and a dog. “[He] supposedly ordained a dog an elder so he could have a jogging companion,” Clark says.

LDS missionaries are supposed to stay with their human companions at all times.

Devil stories are legion among missionaries. BYU’s Rudy, who served in Guatemala, cherishes this classic: After breaking a bone, an elder goes to a preacher of another faith and is healed.

“The mission president finds out, casts the ‘evil’ spirit out of the missionary and the bone re-breaks,” Rudy recalls.

Virtually all LDS missionaries suffer at times from a broken-down spirit. The work is demanding, Wilson notes, and often discouraging. So any story that shows missionaries getting the better of their tormenters can soothe their souls.

Eric Tweten, who served in Washington state, remembers a tale about a never-say-die elder who refused to leave the doorstep until he told the increasingly angry and impatient homeowner about church founder Joseph Smith.

“The man grabs a shotgun and shoots the elder in the chest,” the BYU junior says. “The elder falls off the porch . . . but quickly stands up [unharmed], brushes himself off and says, ‘That’s going to stand against you at the last day.’ “

Ogden resident Callie Robinson, who filled a Spanish-speaking mission in Chicago, remembers the one she heard about a female missionary just learning to speak Spanish. The LDS bishop asked her to give an impromptu speech to the congregation.

The nervous missionary means to say, “I’m embarrassed, and it is the bishop’s fault.”

“But she uses the word embarasada,” Robinson says. “So it comes out, ‘I’m pregnant, and it is the bishop’s fault.’ “

Some missionary stories are more frightening than funny.

One talks about two missionaries who park their car in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood (the location varies depending on who is telling the story) and are harassed by a group of unruly thugs.

The missionaries slip into their car and turn the ignition. As soon as the engine revs, the rowdies run off. Confused but relieved, the missionaries drive away only, to discover later that their car has no battery.

Wilson’s collection includes the story of a Protestant minister who tells two LDS missionaries that if they can drink a glass of poison and remain unharmed, he and his entire congregation will join their church. The two Mormon elders fire back: “Tell you what. You drink the poison, and we’ll raise you from the dead.”

Such stories will live on as long as there are missionaries, Wilson says, just as they do for other groups.

“From studying the folklore of missionaries, railroaders and college professors, we learn not only about what it means to be [a member of those groups], but also what it means to be human.”

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