(Note: this is part 1 of an at-least-3 part series.)
During the 19th century, missionaries often travelled without purse or scrip, relying, instead, on the hospitality of the very people they were trying to teach and convert. And the practice apparently continued, at least in part, until the mid-20th century: until as recently as 1952, missionaries would spend at least some of their time traveling and teaching without purse or scrip. But, as missionary work became urbanized, and as the world became what it is today, missionaries (with the help of their families and their congregations) began supporting themselves, rather than relying on the hospitality of their contacts.
And when I say “supporting themselves,” I mean it, at least for the next 40 years or so. In 1989, the New Era informed future missionaries that the average mission cost $300, but that costs could vary radically. And, in fact, in 1989, the average monthly cost of a mission in, say, Sao Paulo (where I served my mission) was about US$132, while in Belgium, it was US$475.[fn1] Not only that: apparently, your mission costs could change from area to area within your mission, meaning you had to write home at each transfer with a new estimate of your costs.[fn2]
In November 1990, the Church sent out a letter saying that, in light of the variance of mission costs, from US$150 to US$750, missionaries (and, of course, their families and their wards) would, going forward, pay a standardized amount into a central fund; the Church would then dispense these funds as needed to missionaries in the field. The initial cost was US$350 for missionaries from the U.S. and C$400 for missionaries from Canada, irrespective of where they served.
On a practical letter, the change makes sense: if you’re supposed to save for your mission, but you don’t know how much it will cost until two months before you leave, when you find out where you’re going (or, if I’m right about the variance from area to area, until you get transferred), it makes it really hard to figure out how much to save.[fn3] Some families, if they have enough money, will be indifferent. But not everybody is in a financial position to be indifferent.
Also, is it really fair that I, by virtue of being called to Brazil, would have paid $343 a month less than a European missionary (if I were both older than I am)?
We still don’t have a perfect savings target, because the monthly cost of a mission is indexed to, well, something. Today, according to Wikipedia (because I had the darndest time finding it on the Church’s website), a mission is at US$400. A 14% increase over 20 years doesn’t seem terribly inflation-indexed.
[fn1] Sorry I’m not linking to this: my source is a document available on Westlaw and LEXIS, a couple pay sites.
[fn2] I missed this period of missionary work by a couple years, so I don’t have any first-hand knowledge of whether this is true or not. I’d love, in the comments, to hear from anybody who had to fund the actual cost of his or her mission.
[fn3] Knowing how much you need isn’t the end-all, be-all of saving, of course. I put away money for my retirement without knowing when I’ll retire, how much my cost of living will be, or, for that matter, how long I’ll survive after retirement. But it is at least helpful to know what your savings goal is when you’re trying to put away the money.