Be Nice to Missionaries

There are many good reasons to read Craig Harline’s Way Below the Angels: the pretty clearly troubled but not even close to tragic confessions of a real live Mormon missionary.

First of all, it offers solid proof that at least some historians have a wicked sense of humor and can employ it in writing. This is helpful when discussing an estimated 6,700 encounters with people who reject your message.

Harline Way BelowSecond, and this might be helpful for Anxious Bench readers, Harline gives you a glimpse into the interior world of those smartly dressed Latter-day Saint missionaries you are bound to encounter from time to time. Well, at least into his memories of his interior world from forty years ago. It was a world of hubristic hopes of converting scores of Belgians, a place of intense self-doubt and anguish and insecurity, and a heart longing to connect with God and with the people around him.

If I had recurrent nightmares, they would probably be of beach evangelism. My sister, I believe, once went on a beach evangelism spring break trip with Campus Crusade for Christ. One former Crusade staff member I once interviewed recalled beachgoers fleeing as the evangelists approached the beach. Kevin Roose, in his Unlikely Disciple, recounts that many people laughed when they realized that he and his fellow evangelists revealed their purpose was to talk about Jesus. I’m not asserting that Crusade and other organizations shouldn’t do beach evangelism. I’m just saying that I have never wanted to volunteer for endless, embarrassing, and comical rejection.

And even if one’s church expects its young men (and, increasingly, encourages its young women) to serve a mission, and even if by accepting a call do so one gains a greater measure of eternal glory and curries favor with prospective girlfriends, it’s still an incredibly hard thing to do. Harline had to somehow find both the chutzpah and perseverance to drag himself back out there for ten hours a day. It was not easy. In one failed missionary encounter, a “vintage old man started shouting a lot more words I couldn’t understand, then grabbed the both of me and Elder Klein by the arm, from behind, and commenced shoving us toward the front door.” It ended, Harline writes, with “a small but powerful dress shoe to my backside.” As Harline reflects, “it wasn’t fun … it felt completely humiliating and horrible to be disliked by someone who didn’t even know you.”

This is a long way of saying be nice to missionaries. Evangelical, Mormon, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and otherwise. Perhaps there are some exceptions to this rule, but probably not that many. Let missionaries in if it’s not a terribly convenient time. Offer them something to eat. The majority will appreciate your kindness even if you don’t want to hear anything about their message. After all, they don’t expect you to receive their message! And even if you think their message is terribly misguided, it’s better to show them some love instead of treating them like either a complete nuisance or as minions of Satan.

Third, Harline’s book contains poignant and profound messages for all followers of Jesus Christ. It is incredibly easy to put on airs, compete with one’s fellow believers for spiritual and ecclesiastical honors, and ignore Jesus’s commands to love both one’s fellow Christians and one’s neighbors. One can’t really love one’s fellow missionaries while wanting to gain more converts and prestige than them. Likewise, one can’t love the people one encounters if one only sees them as prospective converts.

In the depth of his misery, Harline feels God gently speak to him, Just be yourself. As Harline observes, this seemed to fly in the face of nearly all scriptures and sacred histories “about not being content with yourself, but … [becoming] what God wanted you to be(come), to lose your (presumably ordinary) self in order to find your true (presumably great) self.” One might read that in Augustine’s Confessions, but not in Harline’s, at least not immediately:

it turns out you don’t always want to be you, because you know very well all the spectacular failures and character flaws lurking around inside, and you think that maybe it’d be nicer to be someone else instead, who obviously doesn’t have all those failures and flaws. You also know that God knows all about your lurking failures and flaws too, and you suppose He doesn’t like them and wants you to be a much-more-acceptable-to-Him you. And you especially know that the people around you … don’t really want you completely to be you either … so you end up trying to be someone else instead.

After this encounter, Harline haltingly starts trying to be himself, or really, a much better self. He notices the beauty of his environs. He forms lifelong friendships with Belgians who never evidence any interest in baptism. Once he assumed a local position of leadership within a mission, he even institutes a third daily meal (the missionaries had been eating two meals a day to maximize proselyting time).

Harline’s book is unlikely to end up on the very short list of books approved as references for Latter-day Saint missionaries. In fact, I don’t think even twenty years ago a BYU professor would have published such a candid memoir of missionary angst. Mormons have begun carving out a small safe place for the discussion of doubts and struggles (see Terryl and Fiona Givens’s The Crucible of Doubt, for example). Still, Latter-day Saint culture resembles a Mormon version of the victorious life much of the time.

At the end, Harline suggests that it would help future generations of missionaries if they would receive more realistic information about the struggles they might face during their missions. And he favors more service and less proselyting. My sense is that the LDS Church is considering such things, though not to the extent Harline would recommend.

For interested outsiders, Way Below the Angels offers a funny, thoughtful, and eloquent window into a key part of Mormon practice and culture. Reading it, despite Harline’s sometimes painful experiences, was pure pleasure.


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  • CarliCanada

    I’ve felt sorry for young Mormon missionaries for years and here’s why. In the 80’s I taught ESL with World Relief at a refugee camp in a tropical country where I have fond memories of after-hours interactions with refugees–swimming with them, celebrating with them at parties, eating their delicious food, etc. The young Mormon missionaries, also teaching classes there, were NOT allowed to go swimming, eat at refugee quarters (maybe because refugees served tea as the water had to be boiled) or even listen to the radio! They weren’t supposed to have any worldly influences, meaning they had to stay in their own little rigid box. To me, the value of living overseas is expanding your horizons and learning about about other cultures as you interact with the people, eat their food, listen to their music, and let them serve you.

  • trytoseeitmyway

    Sort of the rich American tourist approach to missionary work. 🙂

  • David Tiffany

    Being nice to Mormon missionaries doesn’t mean Mormon missionaries will be nice to you.
    A few years ago I invited a couple of missionaries into our home. After some discussion I wouldn’t agree with them the Joseph Smith was a prophet and that the Mormon church was the true church. As a result, they left angry and wiped their feet on our carpet on the way out the door. This is their way of putting a curse on your home.

  • Poqui

    I served a full-time LDS mission to Mexico for two years and we were completely immersed in the culture and the people. In fact, when I was there, we lived with locals, some LDS, some not. We ate in their homes everyday, did acts of service for them, rode public transportation with them, ate at the same taco stands they did, celebrated birthdays and holidays in their homes and churches; and chatted with hundreds of locals in their homes, doorsteps, sidewalks, wherever. So don’t feel bad for LDS missionaries, I guarantee you they are getting a solid shot at understanding the people and the culture, much more so than the summer missionaries that come and go in three months.

  • Poqui

    Oh David, you must go crazy looking for stories about the LDS Church to post the same, tired, trite comment. Accepting the missionary’s invitation to come teach you about the LDS Church at home and then turning it into a debate speaks poorly of the host, not the guests.

    Door mats are made for wiping feet, aren’t they?

  • Al Cramer

    My grandmother taught me (by example) this lesson years ago. I grew up in the 50s and 60s in New Mexico, in a Catholic home. When the LDS missionaries came by, in black suits, and riding bicycles, she always invited them in for Lemonade and snacks. She let them know up front that there would be no conversions that day, but that we respected their faith, and their dedication to it. Hopefully that made up for the cursing and slammed doors they may have encountered elsewhere.

  • David Tiffany

    D&C 24:15, “And in whatsoever place ye shall enter, and they receive you not in my name, ye shall leave a cursing instead of a blessing, by casting off the dust of your feet against them as a testimony, and cleansing your feet by the wayside.”

    D&C 60:15, “And shake off the dust of thy feet against those who receive thee not, not in their presence, lest thou provoke them, but in secret; and wash thy feet, as a testimony against them in the day of judgment.”

    D&C 75:20, “And in whatsoever house ye enter, and they receive you not, ye shall depart speedily from that house, and shake off the dust of your feet as a testimony against them.”

    The following excerpt is from Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Seminary Teacher Manual
    Lesson 77: Doctrine and Covenants 75

    “Doctrine and Covenants 75:20–22. “Shake off the dust of your feet”

    The action of shaking or cleansing the dust from one’s feet is a testimony against those who refuse to accept the gospel (see D&C 24:15; 60:15; 84:92; 99:4). President Joseph Fielding Smith explained:

    “When our Lord sent forth his disciples to proclaim the Gospel message he instructed them to shake off the dust of their feet as a testimony against those who opposed them. Likewise … the Lord instructed the elders that they had the same privilege. … The cleansing of their feet, either by washing or wiping off the dust, would be recorded in heaven as a testimony against the wicked. This act, however, was not to be performed in the presence of the offenders, ‘lest thou provoke them, but in secret, and wash thy feet, as a testimony against them in the day of judgment’ [D&C 60:15]. The missionaries of the Church who faithfully perform their duty are under the obligation of leaving their testimony with all with whom they come in contact in their work. This testimony will stand as a witness against those who reject the message, at the judgment” (Church History and Modern Revelation, 2 vols. [1953], 1:223; see also Commentary and Background Information for D&C 24:15 in lesson 31).

    The dusting of one’s feet serves as a testimony against those who completely reject the Lord’s authorized servants. It is performed only in rare circumstances when the Lord expressly commands it. This act also serves as a witness of their rejection and that those who preached the gospel to them are no longer responsible for them before the Lord.

    So people have one of two choices when inviting Mormon missionaries in: 1. Agree with them that Joseph Smith is a prophet and that the Mormon church is the only true church, or 2. have the Mormon missionaries dust their feet off on their way out of your door.

  • trytoseeitmyway

    I’m sure you’re right about that, and your grandmom must be (or must have been) a saint. You were blessed.

    P.S. I think that as a rule Catholics may be more tolerant of the Mormons than some (not all) evangelicals or other theologically conservative Protestants. Many Catholics, especially of the more senior generations, can remember when they encountered some of the same kinds of prejudice from their fellow “Christian” brothers and sisters, some of whom would not know Christ-like love if it walked up to them on the street and shook their hands.

  • CarliCanada

    I’m glad to hear not all LDS missionaries have to live by the same restrictions as the ones I observed. The way you lived should be the ideal. This makes me wonder: Is this because you were assigned a different job? In other words, if you went to a culture to be a “teacher” you were supposed to set an example of non-wordly influence; otherwise, you were given more freedoms? (BTW, I agree that a 3-month term is too short to get “a solid shot” at a culture; I was there over a year and only left then because I had dysentery.)

  • CarliCanada

    Not exactly. 🙂 More than half of our staff were locals; and we lived with them. World Relief decided against separate dorms for the North American or European staff. In each dorm, everyone had a room-mate (2 cots per bedroom) and we shared a kitchen where I fought off cockroaches, but their numbers never seemed to decrease. We only had cold showers. We could pay for washer/dryer use but I did a lot of hand-wash, hang-dry. The power went off sometimes during the rainy season. Access to pay phones to call “home” was an hour away *(this was the 80s). What I remember best though was how we came together to love and help the refugees, who’d been through hell. Everyone cried when they left, me too.

  • trytoseeitmyway

    Thanks for sharing your memorable experience.

  • Jerry Staker

    not so! As an active member my whole life, at 55, I have never heard of nor seen any such thing done by any missionary! Please do not distort the truth, my friend. Again, I have never heard that done by the missionaries, never heard it taught by Church leader as a thing they should do. What you have stated in your last paragraph is an out and out lie! Jerry Staker

  • David Tiffany

    Those are quotes from your own scriptures from

  • Jerry Staker

    David you have a clever way of deceiving the readers. You completely disregarded the two points I was making. A) missionaries don’t do that and it has never been taught as such that I have ever seen, and B) where I said your last paragraph was a lie. Of course the scriptures say what they say. I never said they didn’t. But in practice and teaching as such and the fact you said people have two choices as such, that missionaries do that if you don’t accept their teachings is an out and out lie!!! And your silly response to say that the quotes are in the scriptures, which is true, but you try to make right your last paragraph which is a complete lie by tying it to the scriptures. is deceiving people. The scriptures speak for themselves. But I am telling you that as an active member who has served missions, had extensive callings, and who actually pays close attention to every general conference talk, I am telling you that your last paragraph is a complete lie. But if you really didn’t know it was a lie then I can grant you that, and now you know the truth. People are not condemned as such you make it. Missionaries know this is not a race, and people learn over time, and always have an extended arm to them, but the missionaries do NOT do as YOU stated.

  • David Tiffany

    It’s funny how you were not in my home when the Mormon missionaries wiped their feet on their way out the door, yet you are able to call me a liar.
    They were so quick to wipe their feet, I’m sure they had just thought it up at that moment and were not taught to do it. If your teachings don’t teach this and if the Mormon missionaries aren’t taught to do this, then why was it the wiping of the feet that occurred when they were leaving our home. Why didn’t they knock on their way out of the door? Or why didn’t they ask if anyone was home as they were leaving? Instead, they wiped their feet on our carpet on the way out of our home instead of on their way in.
    Peculiar, wouldn’t you say? Especially when your teachings line up with what they did.

  • Jerry Staker

    David I am sorry you had that experience. I agree you must have felt offended. Nevertheless such is not taught in the Church over General Conference that missionaries are to do that, nor in the mission training centers, nor in any quorums or services. I have never seen or even heard of that practice, yes yes it is in the scriptures. But like I said it is NOT what people can expect if they do not agree with the missionaries so please stop spreading falsehoods. Again I am sorry that that is what you experienced and for rushing to judgement. I did re-read where you said you had missionaries in your home and i missed that in our discussion, so I can see why you posted what you did, but that is NOT what people can expect when the missionaries come. Now, if you want to continue this discussion, I would be interested in “why” or what happened at your home to tick those missionaries off?! Be honest my friend.

  • Jerry Staker

    That part you stated about it being performed in rare instances when the Lord commands it is probably the reason why it is not even taught as I said. It is something the missionaries don’t even have to worry about. Why? Because they would not know if someone, even like you, would actually ever fully reject it. You would probably make a wonderful leader in the Church yourself someday so the missionaries may have been a little ahead of themselves that day in your home. So, while you were offended, just let it go. I doubt you are under some curse and it is not something others can expect not even if they reject the message of the missionaries as you stated. So, please lighten up a bit and relax. Bring the missionaries back again with a sincere heart this time. That is if you really have honest questions and you’re not there to just fight with them. I can only imagine that day at your house. You seem bent on trying to take down the Church or am I wrong?

  • David Tiffany

    First you tell me you are sorry I had that experience. The you tell me that you are sorry I had that experience. Then you are curious as to what ticked those missionaries off. Then you tell me to stop spreading falsehoods. What part is the falsehood? Your doctrines or my account of what happened that day?

    They wiped their feet, according to Mormon doctrine.

    Elder James E. Talmage of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught:

    “To ceremonially shake the dust from one’s feet as a testimony against another was understood by the Jews to symbolize a cessation of fellowship and a renunciation of all responsibility for consequences that might follow. It became an ordinance of accusation and testimony by the Lord’s instructions to His apostles. … In the current dispensation, the Lord has similarly directed His authorized servants to so testify against those who wilfully and maliciously oppose the truth when authoritatively presented (see Doc. and Cov. 24:15; 60:15; 75:20; 84:92; 99:4). The responsibility of testifying before the Lord by this accusing symbol is so great that the means may be employed only under unusual and extreme conditions, as the Spirit of the Lord may direct” (Jesus the Christ, 3rd ed. [1916], 345; see also Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual, 2nd ed. [Church Educational System manual, 2001], 50).

  • David Tiffany

    I’m not afraid of a curse. Proverbs 26:2, “Like a fluttering sparrow or a darting swallow, an undeserved curse does not come to rest.”

    And as far as me trying to take down Mormonism?

  • Jerry Staker

    Your true colors and intentions are in full bloom my friend! Thanks for the discussion. When you come to your self some day spend some sincere time searching the truth at or We will be happy to share the truth when you want to know the truth. You are not helping anyone with your deceptions.

  • David Tiffany

    I was raised Mormon. Fourth generation. I’ve come to know the truth, revealed to me by the Holy Spirit through the hearing of the Word of God.

    I’m a born-again Christian with the sure hope of eternal life. I’ve been delivered from the deception of Mormonism and their preaching of a false gospel.

    No one is being helped by the deceptions of Mormonism.

  • Jerry Staker

    I invite any reader to see for themselves by going to the Church’s own website at or Spend a half hour or more anywhere you’d like. Look what my friend, who left the Church but can’t leave it alone, what this man has to offer. My friend. David, it will all work out just fine. I see what you stand for and I thank you for having a candid discussion with me. Take care. Jerry

  • Steve Johnson

    Last I noticed, Mormonism is still up. Your blog was throwing up a 404 error, however…

  • David Tiffany

    Yes. And while you’re at it, do your research on the failed prophecies of Joseph Smith, on the lack of any archaeological or historical proof of the Book of Mormon, on the papyri being used to write the Book of Abraham being nothing more that a funerary text having nothing to do with Abraham.
    When you discover the truth about these matters, then you can ask yourself if you can trust Joseph Smith when he said precious truths were lost from the Gospel and God commissioned him to restore it.

  • “In fact, I don’t think even twenty years ago a BYU professor would have published such a candid memoir of missionary angst.”

    Actually, _forty_ years ago, the BYU Drama department staged on campus a critically-acclaimed original play called “Fires of the Mind” about an LDS missionary struggling with — and failing to overcome — his own doubts about his faith and his work. I saw it almost immediately after returning from my own two-year mission in Central America and found it outstanding, authentic, and wrenching.

    People outside the LDS Church tend to think of Mormons — and in particular, Mormon missionaries — as sheltered. Trust me, it’s quite the opposite. As LDS missionaries, we get invited into homes and hear (and see) some of the most difficult and heart-wrenching challenges that individuals and families have. Those of us who serve in developing countries see poverty, illiteracy, and lack of opportunity that are just not imaginable here in the US; we often experience physical risk and serious illness as well. Most of us come home having grown up much more than the 18 to 24 months that we spent on our missions.

    That said, let me offer thanks to all who treat LDS missionaries with kindness, even (maybe especially) if it’s just a gentle, “No, thanks.” I lived in Colorado for nine years, moving away about a year ago; during that time, there were a set of Jehovah Witnesses representatives who would stop by every few months. I would always take the time to talk with them, accept their literature, and offer them water, because I knew what it was like to be on the other side of that door. 🙂

  • Let me explain the specific restrictions you cite:

    1) swimming: generally disallowed on missions, due to risk
    2) tea — yep, disallowed, though food wouldn’t be
    3) listening to the radio — while serving as missionaries, they aren’t supposed to entertain themselves with popular music

    Trust me, it’s not a ‘rigid box’ at all. During my two years in Central America (Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama), I spent most of the time living with local (poor) families, paying them for room and board, and being in the midst of their family life. I walked the streets, rode bikes and buses, hitchhiked in some areas, ate lots of rice and beans as well as a variety of exotic dishes (turtle, iguana, armadillo, and what I suspect was dog) and was immersed in the culture and the people. I was bitten by dogs, propositioned by prostitutes, had a few rocks thrown at me, was often accused of being a CIA agent, and had a warning shot fired over my head.

    To use a Mormon cliche, it was the best two years of my life.

  • I’ve never — in 47 years of membership, including two years of serving a mission myself and five times of serving as a ward mission leader in different congregations across the US — have heard of missionaries doing that in a home in which they have been invited. Color me highly skeptical, particularly since you apparently know the D&C citations. I did notice, however, that you left out Matthew 10:14 and Acts 13:51. 🙂

  • CarliCanada

    Good for you, you went out there and lived among the people. Too bad about the dog bites, rocks, and “warning shot”. Ouch. (Refugees treated us with great respect for being ESL teachers.) You certainly had an array of exotic dishes! And I thought my eating local-style fish was exotic because they served it with the heads still on. 🙂 At the refugee camp, it wasn’t possible for camp staff to live with refugees and vice versa; all staff housing–in a defined section of the camp–had dorms or houses with equipped with a kitchen with a sink, stove, and refrigerator. The refugees lived in a section of a long wooden shack where they lived camp-style by collecting water from a pump, visiting a shared latrine and shower, and cooking their allotted raw rice, veggies, etc. in outdoors with assigned cooking gear. (They were great cooks!) Hosting refugees consisted of sharing snacks and playing board games in our kitchen/dining/living room that everyone else in the dorm was using. It was fun to go swimming with our students in shorts (plus a T-shirt for women, none of them had swimsuits) in streams which weren’t fast or deep enough to be risky (except at peak of rainy season when no one went, trust me.) You could visit them to learn their language or go to celebrations. OR you could stay “home” in your own little world. The Mormons at the camp basically did the latter, citing their rules. So, I wonder if it’s because they were “teachers”?

  • Poqui

    The restrictions on non-proselyting activities are there for all the missionaries, those include prohibition on swimming, music, dancing, and dating. But all other activities that can be considered proselyting (I included all kinds of activities in my definition) are accepted. So I visited local schools and taught kids about the American culture (hey, I figured if they saw an LDS missionary in a positive light that was proselyting, right?), I went to their school activities, cultural celebrations in the community, even celebrations in other churches (Dia de los Muertos in Mexico, how could I miss that?). Sorry, I get wordy, but the short answer is, we had the same job, we just interpreted it a little differently. I figured any activity that was not swimming, dancing or dating was proselyting. 🙂