Mormon founder Joseph Smith and five others organized The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on April 6, 1830, in a small cabin in upstate New York. Smith claimed an angel directed him to a set of gold plates, which contained the history of people who had migrated from the Old World to the Americas about 600 years before Jesus Christ.
After Christ’s death and resurrection, so that record said, he visited the people on this continent. Smith translated the work and it became The Book of Mormon, the new church’s scriptural companion to the Bible.
– by Richard John Neuhaus
Within a month, Smith sent his young brother, Samuel Smith, out to sell copies of the book. One of his copies fell into the hands of a craftsman by the name of Brigham Young. A few months later, Smith sent four new converts to Ohio, the “western frontier,” to preach to the Indians, but they mostly converted white Protestants. The church’s membership steadily increased, even as it moved from state to state, until 1839 when Smith sent his 12 apostles to the British Isles. There they met impressive success, baptizing thousands into the newly organized faith and encouraging them to join the Saints in America.
The outreach continued, even after Smith was killed in 1844 and the Mormons moved West. By the 1850s, there were missions to France, Germany, Hawaii and Italy, to name a few.
Armed only with scriptures, certainty and zeal, 19th-century Mormon missionaries fanned out across the globe seeking converts to the new faith. They spoke however and wherever they felt moved – on soapboxes in public squares, in debates about Christian doctrine with Protestant ministers and Catholic priests, or when passing out theological pamphlets on street corners.
A young Gordon B. Hinckley went to England in the 1930s, just as the Depression was setting in. He was given no plan of action, nor tools, other than a couple of pamphlets on Mormon doctrine. He and other missionaries would stand on wooden boxes in London’s Hyde Park and give extemporaneous sermons to curious passers-by.
When he returned to Salt Lake City, Hinckley told the church president that missionaries needed a more standard set of publications to distribute. The president promptly hired the young man to write some. Thus was the church’s systemized teaching begun.
Hinckley is now the church’s 97-year-old “prophet, seer and revelator.” Of the 1 million missionaries who have served the church since its founding, nearly 400,000 – or 40 percent – have gone since 1995, when Hinckley took charge. He has initiated and presided over numerous changes in the faith’s missionary system and has watched the church membership soar from 730,000 while he was a missionary to some 13 million today.
“We have made great progress in our missionary work in recent years,” Hinckley told a group of LDS mission presidents in Provo last weekend. “We have more missionaries and more effective missionaries.”