Mormon milestone: Missionary army has enlisted 1 million since church's 1830 founding

The Salt Lake Tribune/June 26, 2007
By Peggy Fletcher Stack

Provo, Utah -- Standing on the grounds of the LDS Missionary Training Center before a statue of Mormonism's first missionary, LDS apostle M. Russell Ballard announced Monday that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has called its millionth missionary since the faith's founding in 1830.

"The first million was hard," said Elder Dieter Uchtdorf, a member of the church's Quorum of Twelve Apostles who sits on the church's missionary executive committee. "The second million will be easy. [The number of missionaries] will grow and it will grow fast."

Mormon founder Joseph Smith believed he had a mandate to "proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people." Shortly after establishing the church with six people, Smith sent his younger brother, Samuel Smith, to neighboring towns with a knapsack full of copies of the Book of Mormon, the faith's unique scripture.

Now scores of young men and women, older single women and retired couples serve the church as full-time missionaries for 18 months to two years. They are assigned in pairs to proselytize, perform humanitarian service, help people trace their genealogy or anything else church leaders ask them to do. They pay about $400 per month for the privilege; those who cannot afford it can be subsidized by the church.

"They face rejection and sometimes verbal abuse, but they soldier on," Ballard said. "It's a marvelous thing what these young men and women and couples do."

Today, nearly 54,000 missionaries work in 145 nations, speaking and teaching in 164 languages. They learn the assigned languages in one of 16 training centers across the globe.

One-third of the missionaries are from outside the United States and Canada, a percentage that has risen steadily in the past two decades. Some are sent a world away, while many do their evangelizing close to home.

Now, about 90 percent of Nigerian missionaries are Africans, for example, and nearly 60 percent of those working in Brazil are Brazilian-born. This is the fulfillment, Ballard said, of a vision by the late LDS President Spencer W. Kimball, who saw a need to enlist more missionaries native to their countries.

Of the total missionaries, nearly 400,000 - or 40 percent - have served since 1995, when Gordon B. Hinckley became the church's "prophet, seer and revelator."

Largely due to the efforts of these full-time volunteers, the LDS Church has achieved another milestone - 13 million members, with more members outside the United States than in. Hinckley announced the membership figure this past weekend at a meeting of 112 newly assigned mission presidents.

Not everyone on the membership rolls is in the pews on Sunday, however.

Ballard declined Monday to say what percentage of the 13 million are "active," but Brigham Young University demographer Tim Heaton noted in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism that attendance at weekly sacrament meetings in the early 1990s was between 40 percent and 50 percent in Canada, the South Pacific, and the United States. In Europe and Africa, the average was 35 percent. Attendance in Asia and Latin America hovered around 25 percent.

Still, the church has consistently reported the total number of baptized members and makes no distinction between "active" and "inactive."

For the past 12 years at the church's helm, Hinckley has repeatedly urged members to do more to retain the new converts. Much of that falls to the church's ambassadors to the world.

"We have made great progress in our missionary work in recent years," Hinckley told the assembled mission presidents. "We have more missionaries and more effective missionaries."

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