They are still teenagers, 18 or 19, and are sent out to change the lives of adults. The boys dress up like CIA-agents, the girls like old-school women. They typically have no clue about the national, regional, social, cultural, religious, or familial identities of the people they try to interest in their alien sect. They pretend they are only adding to the truth people already have but have no idea which truths these people have. They work within a compelling frame of rules, goals, figures, and reports. Therefore they would do anything to drag a non-member to church on Sunday, even a drunk on the bus or a weirdo met on the way to church. If need be, they break up families to reach their goal, flippantly calling it getting wet, getting white, dunking, plunging, splashing, or putting on the Elvis suit—even if they know in their heart the candidate is not ready.
They call their targets “investigators”—often loners or messed up people who let the missionaries in and who loosely acquiesce to lessons they vaguely understand. These targets are precious souls, ailing, but no patients for inexperienced teenagers. When genuine seekers or religious enquirers are eager to chat with the missionaries, the dissonance is awkward. The teenagers use testimony to dodge reasonable questions and objections. They repel the more thoughtful investigators by prematurely requiring commitments to baptism. They see Satan in the critic. It’s “us versus them.” They have no time to waste on tangential topics because the weekly report is due with figures for various categories—”contacts made,” “discussions given,” “attended sacrament meeting,” “have a baptismal date,” and “baptized.” From a few hundred for the first category to perhaps 1 for the last, but much more often zero.
Between them they play roles to survive, comply, or impress. They sometimes go through hell with companions. They find out that the promises tied to strict obedience and intense work are idle rhetoric (worse: the easy-going and disobedient ones are more successful). Hierarchy, junior, seniors, trainers, transfers, secret crushes, and the Mission President are very much on their mind. Some hide their ambitions but display the expected signs to become DL, ZL, or even AP. Their moods alternate between dark and light. Even if discouraged and depressed, they still teach lessons on faith and happiness. They often wonder what they are doing here. Some discover their own religion.
But occasionally they also experience unexplainable spiritual climaxes, revelation, and the power of grace. They develop resilience and compassion. They learn to sustain each other. They gather gripping life stories and magnify trivialities to major events. They mature, make lifelong friends, and dig into themselves to make sense of it all. They may discover humanity and love among and towards the few strangers they finally get to know well. They bond with the country, even if it’s only for the national desserts. And when they look back after many years, they conclude or convince themselves they don’t regret the experience. Which does not mean they always approve of what they were sent to do.
All the above elements, candidly told as such, and more, are found in the autoethnographic genre or Mormon Missionary Memoirs.
By Common Consent Press published two recent ones, both valuable for their contribution to the genre: Angela Clayton’s The Legend of Hermana Plunge about her mission on the Canary Islands in 1989–1990 and Roger Terry’s Bruder: The Perplexingly Spiritual Life and Not Entirely Unexpected Death of a Mormon Missionary about his mission in Germany in 1975–1977. That means they were slightly older than the average missionary now. First I’ll review these two books and from there expand to ethics and missionary work.
Hermana and Bruder
Both Clayton (Hermana Plunge) and Terry (Bruder Terry) think their story is kind of “atypical”—Clayton because she knows her mission on the tropical Canary islands, without much supervision among a pretty loose local populace, was totally different than tightly-controlled missions in colder countries; Terry mainly because of his candid self-analysis and the disconnect he feels between the missionary he was and the person he is now. But their basic experiences are quite similar, just as they are in other memoirs. Both went on their mission because somehow it belonged to the natural order of things in their family and community. The anticipation of a stay abroad and of social capital upon return (RM!) play an obvious role. Absent from their descriptions: a deep desire to “bring people to Christ.” The rest of the plotline follows typically, from the coziness of pre-mission life to entering the MTC (or still LTM for Terry), the giant leap into a strictly structured life, the bewildering arrival in the field, the totally unrealistic goal-setting by the mission president or leading missionaries, the challenges of the junior status, the bizarre investigators, the uneasiness over the pushy approach (testify, challenge, and baptize promptly), the inter-missionary camaraderie, rivalry, and conflicts, the gossip and the rumors, the highs and lows, the concerns about goals and numbers, and the final reflections on pros and cons.
Clayton still worked with the Alvin-Dyer approach of the 1960s and Terry experimented with it. The later Preach My Gospel is not too far from it with its emphasis on short lessons, testimony, Spirit, and prompt commitments. Both missionaries felt uneasy about this approach. One Dyer-principle is that “the Lord knows who He wants in the Church. This has been determined beforehand and there isn’t much that you and I can do to destroy that” (Clayton, 27, quoting Dyer). It is the concept of the blood of Israel, the elect from the pre-existence who will recognize the voice. For the missionaries in the Canary Islands it meant: “You didn’t have to prepare new Church members, just find them, ready-made. If they didn’t progress, you’d find someone else … In practice, this meant that, as missionaries, we were off the hook for what happened after baptism” (Clayton, 29). Terry from his side wonders about the lack of response of the people: “If this really is God’s only true church, you’d think he could do a better job of either making it more attractive or communicating this fact to his children” (p. 228).
Clayton and Terry also have in common that they wanted to write a mission memoir, driven not only by rich reminiscences they want to tell, but also by a desire to sort out what it all meant and to revisit those with whom they shared emotional moments. Both are surprised when rereading their missionary journals, by what they perceived then, and how their outlook and even memories have changed since. They both struggle to write diplomatically about weird mission leaders and companions they had. Where needed, names are changed, of course. Above all, they mature: they discover that, when it comes to rules and obedience, humanity and common sense trump hypocrisy and idiocy.
Clayton as well as Terry made a calculation of their investment. Clayton (16 months in the field) taught 814 discussions, had 69 investigators at church, and contributed to 20 baptisms. If that sounds successful, first read the details about the lifestyle of local Canarians. Terry (22 months in the field) talked to some 40,000 contacts and taught “between 900 and 1,000 discussions.” Of all his investigators, 13 joined the church, with Terry getting credit for two baptisms—a lonely older lady and an Osmond-fan. Practically all converts, both from Clayton and Terry, turned inactive after their baptism. “It’s as if they were never Mormons, other than to temporarily pad the inflated statistics the Church publishes” (Terry, 230). Still, both our returned missionaries kept in touch, through mail or visits, with some of the people they had known. “While the church may have introduced us all, it didn’t define or limit the relationships we formed” (Clayton, 225). Clayton and Terry cared, enough to give a prominent place to locals in their writings, which deserves a lot of praise.
But each memoir is also distinctive. Professionally Angela Clayton became a business executive. Her memoir shows she was already in that disposition early on–”very judgmental of Molly Mormon types” (p. 6). As a self-conscious woman she is aware of her emancipated status and of the missionaries’ gender, age, and leadership imbalances (certainly still in 1989). She undergoes the frustrations of being commanded and reprimanded by authoritarian males younger than herself. But she remains wise and lucid about it all. Her tale is basically good-humored and her personality jesting and self-affirming—hence the nickname “Plunge” she gave herself as the “legend” who outclassed the male missionaries in bringing in baptisms, but ending as a “wise and jaded has-been” (cover). Her writing style makes the book pretty entertaining.
Roger Terry is a product of the humanities—precisely “not the corporate type” (p. viii). His later career took the literary and editorial direction, moreover deeply embedded in Mormonism, working as an editor for the Liahona and the Ensign, and finally as editorial director of BYU Studies. He knows the Church to be “one of the most complex conundrums you could find” (p. x). It is from that perspective that he looks back with the intensity of a meticulous and sometimes grim quest. When I review a book I highlight the sentences that strike me as important. With Terry’s book I ended up highlighting about one third on many pages. He writes with non-members or uninformed members in mind, explaining church history, organization, and doctrine, intricacies and contradictions included. Understanding dogmas, faith, and spiritual feelings and struggling with inadequacy are recurring themes, sometimes expressed intellectually, sometimes lyrically. But the basic tone remains constructive.
To what extent is Mormon missionary work ethical? The missionary memoirs provide material that illuminates this question in the field of applied ethics. I define ethics here as “a set of concepts and principles that guide us in determining what behavior helps or harms sentient creatures.” In other words: to what extent does Mormon missionary work help or harm? I list here a number of issues that I have developed in greater detail in Dutch here (for those interested, requesting online English translation should enable a fairly understandable text). It should also be clear that I address the topic from the viewpoint of the church “in the peripheries,” the locale of the memoirs, outside of Mormon strongholds.
- Ethics toward the convert
The 2008 financial crisis revealed how crucial it is for bank clients to receive correct information about the risks involved in major decisions. Nowadays financial institutions are pressured to act more ethically: assess clients’ profiles, inform them fully, and protect them against rash and irresponsible decisions. Should not the same apply when people make major religious decisions that are meant to affect the rest of their life and even eternity?
However, most Mormon converts are baptized without realizing what will come next. Preach My Gospel, the missionary handbook, foresees five lessons to be given to investigators. The first four cover essentials: Godhead, restoration, Book of Mormon (lesson 1); plan of salvation from pre-existence to exaltation (lesson 2); first principles and ordinances (lesson 3); prayer, Scriptures study, Sabbath, chastity, word of wisdom, and tithing (lesson 4). Timing for all this? “Rarely should a lesson go over 45 minutes” (p. vii). For these four lessons together, maximum 3 hours. But each lesson can also be given as a “short lesson” of 3 to 5 minutes (p. 41). For all four lessons together, minimum 12 minutes. If the candidate agrees with the commitments the missionary is pressing on, he or she is ready for baptism.
Lesson 5, however, is to “be taught to new members soon after they are baptized and confirmed” (p. 82). That lesson covers most of the rest that is expected: priesthood, missionary service, family home evening, eternal marriage, temple work, family history, service in the Church, and teaching and learning. Sure, says the handbook, “You may begin teaching them about these laws and ordinances between their baptism and confirmation or even before baptism. Baptismal candidates should at least be aware of these laws and ordinances before baptism” (p. 82, italics added). Missionaries who do not want to scare off their investigators will not be eager to mention all these expectations. One may also wonder what “at least be aware of” means if each of the first four lessons lasts between minimum 3 minutes and maximum 45 minutes. Of course, thoughtful investigators will seldom accept baptism after only three hours of teaching, but missionaries will pressure to keep the preparation time as short as possible.
The result is obvious: quick inactivity after baptism. The loss within the first year is staggering. Elder Oaks remarked: “Among those converts who fall away, the attrition is steepest in the two months after baptism.” In their memoirs, both Clayton and Terry mention the high number of “inactives,” sometimes more than 90%. So, is it ethical to baptize people who cannot yet properly assess the implications of membership? President Hinckley warned:
“What does it profit the missionary to baptize someone who leaves the Church within six months? Nothing is accomplished; in fact, damage is done. We have pulled them away from their old moorings and brought them into the Church, only to have them drift away.”
Elsewhere he stressed: “There is absolutely no point in doing missionary work unless we hold on to the fruits of that effort. The two must be inseparable.”
Not only social damage is done, but if we take our religion seriously, we let converts make covenants they are unlikely to keep. In their memoirs, both Clayton and Terry struggle with that dilemma. “A lot of what I did was ultimately pointless,” says Clayton (p. ix). Terry digs deeper into this “soteriological problem” to conclude that missionary work “just doesn’t add up”: based on Latter-day doctrines, it would be much better that people hear about the gospel in the afterlife in order to be practically sure of their redemption (p. 232–233). The topic has become even more acute by a recent conference talk by president Russell M. Nelson where he weeps for those who decline the invitation to be baptized, namely all those who “have chosen not to make covenants with God. They have not received the ordinances that will exalt them with their families and bind them together forever.” Speaking of a friend of his, who was taught by the missionaries but not willing to commit, president Nelson even doubts “the efficacy of proxy temple work for a man who had the opportunity to be baptized in this life—to be ordained to the priesthood and receive temple blessings while here in mortality—but who made the conscious decision to reject that course.” If that is so, the millions taught by missionaries but who declined to be baptized, will regret ever letting them in their house, since, according to presidents Wilford Woodruff and Lorenzo Snow, all those who never heard the fullness of the gospel on earth, will gladly and easily accept it in the spirit world.
- Ethics toward the family
Terry is frank from what he saw: “As committed to family as Mormons advertise themselves to be, from the beginning they have nevertheless been quite adept at breaking families apart” (p. 140). Indeed, missionaries trigger tensions, conflicts, and sometimes devastating breaches between converts and other members of their family. The memoirs regularly mention such cases. Terry tells how one of his companions, a convert himself, was kicked out of his house, and his mother, when he decided to go on a mission, “vowed never to speak to him again” (p. 181). But that missionary is now causing the same drama elsewhere.
Mormon missionaries are not only totally unprepared to deal with these conflicts, but also taught to ignore them. Preach My Gospel mentions the topic three times. (1) 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. (2) The handbook 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 teenagers who are driven by one goal: to baptize. (3) The handbook 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.” (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. The handbook does not help the missionaries to understand and handle the turmoil they can trigger in families and in the surrounding society. On the contrary: it convinces them that averse family members are nuisances. Is it ethical to allow 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? That question surfaces in the memoirs.
- Ethics toward the community
The communities where Clayton and Terry worked, respectively in the Canary Islands and in Germany, did not feel threatened by the Mormon missionaries. In many developed and democratic countries, in particular those with tolerant religious pluralism, proselytizing is considered annoying but not menacing. Americans in particular are accustomed to religious marketing—”Shopping for Jesus.” It is considered part of religious freedom. Such is not the case in other communities or countries. Though Article 18 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights (1948) guarantees “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”, the 1966 UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights added a limitation as article 18.3: “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 reasons for the addition were obvious: religious freedom to proselytize is not unlimited if it causes harm. I focus here on the part “public safety and order.”
Of course, the Church does not intend to disturb safety and order. It is very careful to work within the laws of each country. The issue here is how in certain countries people view proselytizers and what reactions this may provoke. The origin of the limitations, which the UN Covenant mentions, is found in their history: these nations have been torn apart by religious strife, and many still are being torn apart. Millions of individuals view their religion as part of their core identity, such as gender or consanguinity. One does not try to change that. As Gandhi said: “Proselytization will mean no peace in the world.” The Catholic Church and the hundreds of churches affiliated with the World Council of Churches have agreed to enter into more responsible relationships and recognize each other’s baptism, rather than hostilely proselytize among each other. For them, the “common witness” of Jesus precludes competition. In countries where several religions co-exist in a delicate balance, conversion is considered treason. Proselytism by a foreign entity can be perceived as assaulting the very character of a nation or of an ethnic group. Missionaries are then viewed as religious intruders who try to drive a wedge in the social fabric.
As Mormons we state that we come only to bring “more truth” to individuals and offer them a happier life, reassuring the government that we meticulously obey the laws. In reality, according to our own literature, we aspire to much more: change persons thoroughly, untie them from their original milieu, and involve them deeply in church life. In democratic countries with free religious pluralism, this aim is perfectly acceptable. In other countries, not so, and if the law prohibits forms of proselytism, the Church accepts those limitations. Moreover, the church may come across as politically ambitious, which is undeniable from its own founding texts: the “Kingdom of God” is meant to overpower all other nations and establish Christ’s rule on earth. We may explain it differently, but outsiders read what’s in our own texts. Some countries know all too well from history that every domineering religion once started in a tiny place before expansionism made it a conqueror. Hence, a deep distrust of proselytizers.
If needed, the Church accepts the limitations. When BYU wanted to build its Jerusalem center, orthodox forces within Israel reacted passionately and aggresively out of fear for proselytism. It became a major political issue. The Church finally signed a declaration it would not proselytize in Israel and gave strict orders to its faculty and students never to do so. .
W. Cole Durham, arguing from an explicit Mormon perspective, defends the thesis that “normal efforts to engage in religious persuasion—even fairly activist efforts” should always be protected. But he does not define “normal,” nor does he consider the potentially harrowing consequences of even “normal” proselytism on individuals, families, or the community in certain settings. Western approaches to “persuade,” do not apply equally all over the world. Even within Europe, where freedom to preach exists, the Church has at present guidelines to restrict the teaching of Muslims, both for their safety and for the safety of missionaries and members
The trouble the church is experiencing in Russia and other ex-communist nations invites us to try to see it from their side. Here are countries that experienced a massive upheaval in the 1990s. Each went through a difficult process to rebuild a national identity, reconcile internal divisive forces, and allow the domestic church, which greatly suffered under communism, to regain strength—a difficult process which is still ongoing. But the process had barely started before American churches, with massive means, “invaded” the country to make converts, profiting from the disarray and the open doors. Was this ethical? No wonder Russia later on enacted laws to curb such incursions that could disrupt social harmony. Again, trying to see it from their side: they may fear that a sect of American origin may spread quickly and create a major subversive presence in the country. Many Mormons reacted similarly when Protestant missionaries set up missions in Utah (Territory) between 1865 and the early 1900s.
- Ethics and human rights
Back to Article 18.3 of the UN Covenant: “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.” That latter part pertains to the protection of the rights of those who are the target of proselytism. In his thorough analysis of proselytism versus rights, Tad Stahnke, in an excellent assessment in the BYU Law Review, analyzes the rights to preach, but also the rights of people “to be protected from injury to their religious feelings and to maintain their religious identity.” Indeed, almost inevitably, proselytism implies criticism of other religions, since one religion is touted as the better one. Such criticism is, in most countries, protected by free speech. However, it can also offend believers to such a degree that it injures their religious feelings and their rights to respect are being violated. In many countries and cultures so-called blasphemy laws condemn such irreverence toward one’s religion, comparable to the unacceptability of racist utterances. The media have shown us to what kind of public outrage the mocking of one’s religion can lead, in particular the name of God or his prophet.
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.
It is interesting to note that President Nelson raised a similar awareness of offensiveness when speaking about the name of the Church:
“Thus, the name of the Church is not negotiable. When the Savior clearly states what the name of His Church should be and even precedes His declaration with, ‘Thus shall my church be called,’ He is serious. And if we allow nicknames to be used or adopt or even sponsor those nicknames ourselves, He is offended … To remove the Lord’s name from the Lord’s Church is a major victory for Satan.”
With such strong admonition, with even the Savior being offended, faithful church members should be deeply offended with the blasphemy of the phrase “Mormon church.” We can look to Pakistan to see how ardent believers react to blasphemy.
A question of statistics?
These various ethical considerations cannot deny the fact that missionary work can bring great joy and satisfaction to converts. In most wards there are converts who, even after decades of membership, will testify how much the church has been a blessing for them and their family. But how representative are they? To a certain extent it boils down to statistics. How many converts have been helped and how many have been harmed? If one considers being inactive as “harmed,” as President Hinckley mentioned, then the vast majority is harmed. Of course, many inactive members themselves do not feel “harmed” by their passage in Mormonism, and some may even retain good memories from the experience, but many others have suffered greatly in exiting and deeply regret the day they let the missionaries in.
Based on more than half a century of observations in Europe, I deduct that perhaps one out of a hundred members (including those born in the church) reaches life’s end as a still convinced and fulfilled latter-day saint. It could be gauged by the number of Mormon funerals measured against the church membership in a country over a longer period. And even those who reach that final point as active members may have experienced multiple conflicts and frustrations during their life in the church, the falling away of family members, the “crucible of doubt,” the repulsion over the fight against same-sex marriage and LGBT- policies, or the realization—as one dying member once told me—that his decades of tithing could have left his surviving wife with a pension and a little home of her own.
Not all ethical issues have been covered in the above. How ethical is it to send out teenagers to perhaps bless but more often mess up the lives of others? How ethical is marketing religion? How ethical are mission presidents who push for numbers but don’t follow up on retention?
President Hinckley told mission presidents: “Your missionaries must be sure that conversion is real, that it is life-changing, that it is something that is to last forever and go on through generations. Nobody gains when there is baptism without retention.”
When missionaries cannot give that certainty, what should we conclude?
What are ways that would make Mormon missionary work more ethical?
 See, for example, Craig Harline, Way Below the Angels: The Pretty Clearly Troubled But Not Even Close to Tragic Confessions of a Real Live Mormon Missionary (Eerdmans, 2014); William Shunn, The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary (Sinister Regard, 2015); John K. Williams, Heaven Up Here (Lulu, 2011); Jacob P. Young, Harvest: Memoir of a Mormon Missionary (Semevent Books, 2010).
 Richard Paul and Linda Elder, The Thinker’s Guide to Understanding the Foundations of Ethical Reasoning (Foundation for Critical Thinking Free Press, 2009).
 See, for example, Seth L. Bryant, Henri Gooren, Rick Phillips, and David G. Stewart Jr., “Conversion and Retention in Mormonism,” In Lewis R. Rambo & Charles E. Farhadian (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 756–785 (771); David G. Stewart, The Law of the Harvest: Practical Principles of Effective Missionary Work (Henderson, NV: Cumorah Foundation, 2007), 37.
 Gordon B. Hinckley, “Conference talk at Woods Cross Utah Regional Conference,” January 10, 1998. Quoted in David G. Stewart, Jr., The Law of the Harvest: Practical Principles of Effective Missionary Work (Henderson, NV: Cumorah Foundation, 2007), 244.
 Russell M. Nelson, “Come, Follow Me”, Conference address, April 7, 2019.
 See quotes in Introduction to Family History Student Manual (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2012), Chapter 9: The Spirit World and the Redemption of the Dead.
 Dominic Janes (ed.), Shopping for Jesus: Faith in Marketing in the USA (New Academia, 2008).
 Monica Cooney, “Towards Common Witness: A Call to Adopt Responsible Relationships in Mission and to Avoid Proselytism,” International Review of Mission 85, no. 337 (1996): 283–289. See also John C. Haughey, “The Complex Accusation of Sheep-Stealing: Proselytism and Ethics,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 35, no. 2 (1998): 257–268; John Witte, Jr., “A Primer on the Rights and Wrongs of Proselytism,” Fides et Libertas: The Journal of the International Religious Liberty Association (2000): 12–16.
 W. Cole Durham Jr., “The Impact of Secularization on Proselytism in Europe: A Minority Religion Perspective,” in Reid L. Neilson (ed.), Global Mormonism in the 21st Century (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2008), 114–133.
 Thomas Edgar Lyon, “Evangelical Protestant Missionary Activities in Mormon Dominated Areas: 1865-1900,” PhD diss. (University of Utah, 1962); Charles Randall Paul, Converting the Saints: A Study of Religious Rivalry in America (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford, 2018); Jana K. Riess, “Heathen in Our Fair Land: Anti-polygamy and Protestant Women’s Missions to Utah, 1869-1910,” PhD diss. (Columbia University, 2000).
 Tad Stahnke, “Proselytism and the Freedom to Change Religion in International Human Rights Law,” Brigham Young University Law Review, 1999: 251–350 (254).