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Religion Library: Mormonism

Missions and Expansion

Written by: Stephen Taysom

From its inception, the LDS Church, literally following the New Testament injunction to take the Gospel to "every creature," has been a proselytizing organization.The first missionaries were dispatched soon after the publication of The Book of Mormon in 1830. In these early months, the Church focused missionary activity in upstate New York near Joseph Smith's home. By the fall of 1830, a missionary expedition headed toward Missouri in an effort to preach to Native American tribes in that area. On the way west, the missionaries found great success in baptizing members of an offshoot of the Campbellite sect at Kirtland, near Cleveland, Ohio.

For most of the 1830s, missionary work remained concentrated near areas of Mormon settlement in Ohio and Missouri as well as the states in between those two headquarter sites and some parts of eastern Canada. In 1837, however, Joseph Smith sent a small contingent of missionaries to Great Britain. The bleak conditions that prevailed in Britain, and the promise of immigration to America with the Mormons, added appeal to the religious message that the missionaries carried with them. Between 1837 and the early 1840s, thousands of Britons joined the LDS Church, and most of them migrated to the LDS stronghold at Nauvoo, Illinois. Smaller missionary operations began in French Polynesia in 1843. After Joseph Smith's death in 1844, missions were established in Wales and California. In the 1850s, after the Mormons arrived in Utah, Brigham Young established missions in Scandinavia, South America, Asia, and the south Pacific.

Missionary work continued to expand and spread, and today over 50,000 LDS missionaries serve in the nearly 400 missions that the Church operates throughout the world. Males between the ages of 19 and 26 who are physically, emotionally, and religiously qualified are expected to serve as full-time proselytizing missionaries for a period of two years. Women may serve as missionaries for a period of 18 months after they reach 21 years of age. Although Mormonism is a relatively young religious tradition, nearly two centuries of vigorous missionary work has resulted in the rapid spread of Mormonism throughout the world. The Church claims approximately 14 million members worldwide, with more than half of those living outside of the United States and Canada.

Until the mid-20th century, local Mormon congregations throughout the world enjoyed a good deal of freedom in deciding how and where to build meetinghouses, what materials to use in Church classes, and how to plan and hold meetings. Today, although there are Mormon congregations in most countries of the world, there is very little local variation in terms of worship or teaching. Church classes across the world are taught from coordinated lesson manuals that are translated into scores of languages. The Church's headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah, employs a process known as "correlation" to ensure that everything published in manuals and other media to be used in Church services is doctrinally sound and otherwise appropriate. Mormons are instructed that non-correlated materials should not be used in Church teaching or sermons. The global use of a uniform Church curriculum and the centrally controlled content of that material, leave little room for regional adaptations.

 

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