Hardscrabble history for Czech proselytizers

Mormon missionaries have faced struggles in Bohemia and beyond

The Prague Post/March 15, 2006
By Brandon Swanson

Thanks to its vigorous missionary program, more than half of the 12.5 million members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints live outside of the United States.

So it may seem surprising that even in a highly atheistic country like the Czech Republic there are only 1,800 Czechs that currently call themselves Mormons.

There are even fewer practicing Mormons in Slovakia — only 150 claim membership in the church. Slovakia does not consider the church an official religion, and Mormon lawyers are trying to get the country to reverse that and join 165 others in recognizing its legitimacy.

In the Czech Republic, the tumultuous changes history has brought, including protracted religious wars, have cast long shadows.

"I believe that proselytizing in the Czech Republic is difficult because of Czechs' prior history," says Czech Republic and Slovakia Mission President Fred Yost. "The Czechs do not trust organized religion."

And the Mormon Church has been controversial throughout most of its history. Early Mormons in the United States faced continual persecution for their beliefs — which center on the idea that the Book of Mormon is another testament to Jesus Christ — and were pushed west from New York, eventually concentrating in Utah.

Mormons believe that other Christian sects no longer follow the true teachings of Jesus. And many people in the United States opposed the church's early stance allowing polygamy.

Open proselytizing was forbidden under the Austro-Hungarian Empire when Americans Thomas Beisinger and Paul Hammer arrived in March 1884, according to Kehlile Mehr, who wrote Enduring Believers, Czechoslovakia, and the Latter-day Saints, 1884-1990 for the Mormon History Association.

The two missionaries could only spread Mormon teachings through casual conversations, which led to Beisinger's arrest and a total of 68 days in jail.

Missionaries made little progress until 1913, when they met sisters Františka and Jana Brodilová in Austria. After losing contact with the church during World War I, the sisters moved to Prague to find work. They also found leaders of the Latter-day Saints and became the first people baptized as Mormons in Czech lands in 1921.

The sisters translated the Book of Mormon from German to Czech and Brodilová's translation is still used by missionaries today.

An official mission was founded in 1929, but the effort was suspended when Czechoslovakia was invaded at the start of World War II.

The church resumed activity in the country immediately following the war, but communists expelled all foreign missionaries in April 1950. Church leaders were for the most part cut off from Mormons still living in Czechoslovakia for the next 40 years.

After the 1989 revolution, the church reestablished the mission in 1990 and currently supervises 76 missionaries in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. New missionaries rotate into the countries in nine-week intervals.

An overwhelming majority of missionaries are men. They are allowed to begin this work when they turn 19, and their missions last for two years.

At 21, women can begin their missions, which last for 18 months.

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