Brigham Young University

From the earliest moments in Latter-day Saint history, taking the restored gospel to the world was central to the meanings and purposes of the Church. The Prophet Joseph Smith accepted the Savior’s charge to “go ye therefore, and teach all nations” (Matt. 28:19), as found in the New Testament. Modern revelations in the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants reinforced the necessity of gleaning chosen Israel from the nations of the earth (for examples, see D&C 4:4; 11:3; 12:3; 31:4.) Shortly after the organization of the Church on 6 April 1830, the Prophet sent his brother Samuel, armed with copies of the newly published Book of Mormon, as the first called missionary of the Church. Four other missionaries Oliver Cowdery, Peter Whitmer Jr., Parley P. Pratt, and Ziba Peterson were soon called to the Lamanite Mission. By the end of 1830, 280 converts had been baptized into the newly organized Church.

Early missionary work was centered in eastern United States and Canada. The first mission outside of North America was to Great Britain in 1837. This also appears to be the earliest use of the term mission as a designated ecclesiastical unit of the Church. In 1843 Joseph Smith sent elders to the Society Islands (French Polynesia). This was the first non-English-speaking mission of the Church. From June 1844, when Joseph Smith was martyred, until the Church was established in Utah, the expansion of missions proceeded haltingly only the Welsh mission in 1845 and the California mission in 1846 were founded. But in the early 1850s, President Brigham Young and his associates determined that the Church was again strong enough to continue its mission of taking the restored gospel to the nations.

The Scandinavian, French, Italian, Swiss, and Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) missions were opened in 1850. During the next five years, missionary work opened in Australia, Chile, India, Burma, Malta, Germany, Gibraltar, Hong Kong, New Zealand, South Africa, Siam, (Thailand) and American Indian Territory. Success and longevity varied from mission to mission, but the gospel was going forth. From 1864, when a mission opened in the Netherlands, until the beginning of the twentieth century, only Mexico, Turkey, Samoa, and Tonga were added as new mission areas outside of North America. Inside the United States, however, various regional missions were developed.

In 1901, Japan the twenty-first mission worldwide was the first mission outside of North America founded in the twentieth century. Even while the Church endured two world wars and the great depression, the number of missions more than doubled to 43 by 1950. Since then the number of missions has exploded to 333 (1999), with approximately 60,000 missionaries serving in more than 160 countries and territories worldwide. The greatest growth in numbers of missions and numbers of converts has come in Mexico, Central and South America, Africa, and Asia. During the 1990s a number of missions were organized in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.


Latter-day Saint missions differ from Protestant and Roman Catholic missions, which are generally staffed by professionals who devote their lives to proselyting, creating mission theology, teaching and administering schools, translating or retranslating the Bible into new languages, carrying out medical and social services, and studying mission work anthropologically, historically, or sociologically (missiology). Latter-day Saints do not separate missionary work from the principal purposes and undertakings of the Church. Indeed, missionary work for the living and the dead (as done in LDS temples) is the heart and focus of the Church. To a considerable degree, the history of the Church is the history of missionary work, and vice versa.

Missionary work has been the life blood or ever-revitalizing force within the Church. The essence of this work has been to bear witness of the truth that Joseph Smith is a prophet, seer, and revelator called by God, that the Book of Mormon was translated by Joseph Smith from ancient records and is another testament that Jesus is the Christ, that Jesus Christ and God the Father live and guide the Church, and that the Church is led by a series of prophets of God. Many other doctrines and explanations regarding organization, priesthood, revelation, social order (beliefs regarding the family), scriptures, education, and intelligence, are available and may be shared by Mormon elders and sisters. But the essence of the message and witness has been the teachings mentioned here in combination with the basic gospel message that every person must have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, repent of his or her sins, be baptized by one holding priesthood authority, be confirmed by the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost, and endure that is, remain faithful in keeping the Lord’s commandments and serving in His Church until one’s work in mortality is done. The plan of salvation and the purpose of mortality are taught to all investigators who study with the missionaries. During the nineteenth century, missionaries frequently warned their hearers of the impending second coming of the Lord and told them that the day of judgment was at hand. New members were strongly encouraged to gather to Zion in the Mountain West. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, Saints around the world have been encouraged to remain in their home countries to build up the Church there. Considering the current growth and demographics of the Church, such counsel makes obvious sense.

During the first 40 or 50 years after the Church was organized, most missionaries were married men who left their families for various lengths of time from a few days or weeks up to a few years to serve without any financial support from their families or the Church. They were usually assigned to work in pairs. They traveled without “purse or scrip” and depended on the good will and generosity of the people they met. The belief existed among them that the willingness of individuals and families to sustain them as the Lord’s servants was one of the major tests of worthiness to receive the restored gospel. During the twentieth century, particularly since World War II, most missionaries or their families have provided a major share of their support. The Church has paid the cost of transportation to and from the mission field.

Latter-day Saint missionary work has always been well structured and organized. Strict rules of behavior and protocol have been important. Even though during the early decades individual missionaries frequently had greater personal discretion than today, a strict rule of celibacy and separation of the sexes among single missionaries has always prevailed. All missions and missionaries have been organized under an apostle, a seventy, a mission president, or some order of priesthood supervision. Within missions a variety of organizational patterns have been used, but reporting lines have been important and carefully adhered to. Leaders of the Church have stressed from the beginning that order was to abound within the Church, and members were to be provided with evidence of their fellowship with the Saints, that is, with membership certificates.

During the twentieth century, missionary work has become increasingly structured. Young elders (men ages 19 to 26) served for two years; young sisters (women ages 21 and older) served for 18 months. Older couples served a period of 12 to 24 months. Prior to being called to service, missionaries were carefully screened regarding worthiness, testimony of the gospel, and physical and mental health. Once in the mission field, uniform rules of study, work hours, service time, and preparation time are followed by all young missionaries. Most LDS missionaries proselyte full time, usually 60 to 70 hours a week. Several methods are used in finding potential investigators: house-to-house tracting (knocking on doors and leaving printed information) is most common, but referrals by members who introduce the potential convert to the missionaries in the member’s own home are the most successful. Street meetings and mall presentations have occasionally been used in some areas. The Church operates a number of visitors’ centers at historic sites and at temples, where missionaries provide printed materials, media presentations, historical summaries or lectures, and warm hospitality. Missionaries use various other approaches in different parts of the world.

Before World War II, LDS missionaries did not use a uniform plan for teaching the gospel. The doctrines taught were the same everywhere, of course, but the manner and order of presentation and emphasis varied. In the late 1940s, Elders Richard L. Anderson in the Northwestern States Mission and Willard A. Aston in the Great Lakes Mission created systematic missionary plans. In addition to making the message clearer and simpler, the plans made it possible to transfer missionaries from place to place and still maintain continuity among missionary teachers. The success of such plans became obvious to the Church Missionary Committee, which created a uniform system for teaching investigators that was announced to mission presidents in June 1961. From that time, missionary teaching has been similar worldwide.

Because LDS missionaries are lay members, outside observers have at times suggested that they are not “trained for the ministry.” Although formal divinity training is not part of the LDS system, missionaries, especially those who are reared in the Church and who participate fully in its programs, have ample opportunity to study the gospel in formal settings. In addition to three hours of Sunday services in which all aspects of the gospel are taught, young Latter-day Saints also have the opportunity to study the gospel in their homes, as well as in weekday religion classes at the high school (seminary) and university (institute) levels. Prospective missionaries who attend the Church’s institutions of higher learning also receive religious instruction.

After a missionary receives his or her call to serve, materials for study are supplied for further preparation. This is true also for mission presidents and their wives. Upon entering missionary service, missionaries report to one of many Missionary Training Centers throughout the world for instruction in basic methods of teaching the gospel and, if assigned to a foreign language mission, eight weeks of intensive language instruction. This has not always been the pattern of language instruction. Prior to the early 1960s, missionaries were required to learn foreign languages while in the mission field.

Translation work has been an obvious requirement for successful planting of the gospel. As a rule, the first materials translated have been tracts, pamphlets, the Joseph Smith testimony of his First Vision, and the Book of Mormon. Until the mid-1960s, the responsibility to translate these materials and others like them first rested upon the local leadership. Then in the mid-1960s, the Translation Department was created to coordinate these activities throughout the world. Local offices were established in Asia, Europe, and Latin America. Through the Salt Lake City offices and the various centers, all translation work and printing are coordinated from beginning to distribution in the stakes and missions. The work of the Translation Department has greatly enhanced the ability of missionaries foreign and local to communicate with potential and new members of the Church.

In the late 1990s, each mission was organized with a president, usually a middle-aged or older married man, who, along with his wife, had many years of experience in Church administration and gospel teaching. Mission presidents and their wives, who generally served for three years, were usually given a support stipend from the Church, but sacrifice was always involved.

A second type of mission is the stake mission. Stake missions are organized to include missionaries who live at home and serve on a part-time basis, but who coordinate closely with full-time missionaries. Stake missionaries are organized under a stake mission presidency that is directed by the stake president.

In addition to full-time proselyting missionaries, in the late 1990s more than 137,600 additional missionaries were also serving the Church in varied assignments. Church Service Missionary assignments include helping with temple work, the Church Educational System, family history, health, agriculture, welfare services, LDS charities, leadership, and hosting. Many Church Service Missionaries serve in the central offices of the Church in a variety of assignments.


After the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was selected and organized in 1835, the primacy of the role of the Twelve in spreading the gospel to the nations was soon evident. Not only did some of the Twelve accept missionary calls to England in 1837, but they also took charge, as directed by the First Presidency, of the Church as it grew in America and Canada, in the British Isles, in Europe, and in the Pacific and Asian regions. Since that time the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve have directly administered the expansion of the Church throughout the nations.

Every Church president has contributed to missionary work and the worldwide growth of the Church, in recent years the work has moved forward more rapidly. The 1950s and 1960s provided conditions that allowed President David O. McKay to travel throughout the world. His statement, “Every member a missionary” (a rephrasing of the Lord’s commandment that every member should “warn his neighbor” [D&C 88:81]), was an inspired missionary slogan during his time and has been reiterated frequently since. Between 1951 and 1970, Church membership grew from 1.14 million to 2.9 million members.

In 1974 President Spencer W. Kimball further awakened the Church to its missionary responsibility with an address titled “When the World Will Be Converted.” While liberal and mainline Protestant and Catholic mission theorists were calling for the end of using words such as convert, conversion, and missions, President Kimball and other LDS leaders were marshaling the forces of the Church to begin one of the greatest periods of missionary activity the world has known. President Kimball emphasized the responsibility of “every able worthy” young priesthood holder to “shoulder the cross” and serve a mission (Kimball, 8). During his presidency (1973-85), missionary numbers expanded from 17,258 to 29,265. The young men and women of the Church “lengthened their stride and quickened their pace” to carry the gospel to the world. Total numbers of members grew from 3.3 million to 5.9 million, and the number of missions climbed to 188.

President Ezra Taft Benson emphasized studying the Book of Mormon and using it as a proselyting tool. During his presidency (1985-94), missionary numbers grew to 47,311. Membership also expanded dramatically to 9.02 million at the time of his passing. The number of missions grew to 303.

President Gordon B. Hinckley vigorously continued the Church’s emphasis on taking the gospel to all the world’s peoples. By 1998 the number of full-time proselyting missionaries expanded to almost 60,000 and the number of missions to 331 (only 110 of which were in North America). Of collateral significance was his leadership in using all legitimate forms of media (print, radio, television, Internet, etc.) to bring the Church “out of obscurity” (D&C 1:30) and his continual traveling to all parts of the earth to strengthen members and encourage missionary work.

For many decades after the large emigration of 19th-century Saints from the British Isles and Scandinavia to Zion (1850-90), most Church members lived in the United States. Then in February 1996 membership outside the United States for the first time exceeded that within. The Church had become a truly international organization. In 1999 Church membership reached 10,354,241.


Britsch, R. Lanier. “Mormon Missions: An Introduction to the Latter-day Saints Missionary System.” Occasional Bulletin of Missionary Research 3 (January 1979): 22-27.

Cleverly, Dean B. “Missions.” Encyclopedia of Mormonism. Edited by Daniel H. Ludlow. 4 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1992. 915-20.

Condie, Spencer J. “Missionary, Missionary Life.” Encyclopedia of Mormonism. Edited by Daniel H. Ludlow. 4 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1992. 2:910-13.

Day, Gerald J. “Mission President.” Encyclopedia of Mormonism. Edited by Daniel H. Ludlow. 4 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1992. 2:914-15.

Kimball, Spencer W. “When the World Will Be Converted.” Ensign 4 (October 1974): 3-14.

1999-2000 Church Almanac. Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1998.

Whittaker, David J. “Mormon Missiology: An Introduction and Guide to the Sources.” The Disciple as Witness. Edited by Stephen D. Ricks, et al. Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2000. 435-514.