Review: Reid L. Neilson, “Early Mormon Missionary Activities in Japan, 1901-1924″

Title: Early Mormon Missionary Activities in Japan, 1901-1924
Author: Reid L. Neilson
Publisher: University of Utah Press
Genre: Mormon Studies
Year: 2010
Pages: 214
ISBN13: 9780874809893
Binding: Paperback

Heber J. Grant, Apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had disappointing news to share at the Church’s October 1903 General Conference. “I know that the Latter-day Saints have been greatly interested in the mission I was called to preside over, and I regret I am not able to tell you that we have done something wonderful over in Japan,” Grant lamented. The Japanese mission had opened with great excitement in 1901 but progress did not match expectations. “To be perfectly frank with you,” Grant added, “ I acknowledge I have accomplished very little indeed, as the president of that mission; and very little has been accomplished—so far as conversions are concerned” (120). Grant held out hope that “there will yet be a great and important labor accomplished in that land.” But it wouldn’t come in his lifetime, as Grant himself directed the “temporary closing of the mission and withdrawal of the missionaries” in 1924, shortly before World War II (120). Eighty-eight missionaries over twenty-three years claimed only 166 baptized converts, only around a dozen remaining active at the time the mission closed (146).

Historian Reid L. Neilson’s Early Mormon Missionary Activities in Japan, 1901-1924 is a concise history of that seemingly-failed missionary effort. The book’s careful organization and openness—perhaps its very existence—is evidence of the author’s own love for the subject (Reid served an LDS mission to Sapporo, Japan in the early 90s) and love of history (Reid is the current managing director of the LDS Church History Department). Reid argues that the very LDS theology, practices, and traditions that led them to open the Japan mission “were paradoxically also responsible for its eventual demise in 1924” (xi).

Reid’s book situates Mormon missionary efforts within the broader and increasingly popular scholarship on Christian missiology. Reid notes that practically all prior treatments of Mormon missiology consist of hagiographic accounts which suffer from a crucial flaw: “they usually lack historical perspective and a relationship with the larger Christian missionary community…As a result, the existing histories of the LDS experience in Asia continue to float outside of the larger historical and academic world” (x-xi). Focusing particularly on Japan, Reid’s hopes the book will help Mormon and non-Mormon religious scholars better understand the Mormon missionary experience in light of broader American religious history and missiology.

The book is divided into two parts. Part one, “Nineteenth Century Explorations in Asia” describes how Mormons have “mapped” various cultures onto their conception of the world. Early Mormons were intensely focused on the House of Israel and the search for the “elect” whom they would gather into their fold before the millennial return of Jesus Christ. He discusses Mormon interactions with Asia during the nineteenth century and explains how Mormons accounted for aspects of Chinese and Japanese culture which resonated with their beliefs—the “spirit of Christ” which is thought to inspire people regardless of creed or culture, and “diffusionism,” which holds that the gospel of Christ was revealed to Adam, later to go through cycles of apostasy and restoration.

Reid describes what he calls the “Euro-American Mormon Missionary Model” and compares it with general American Protestant missionary models (35-58). The model describes how missionaries are trained, financed, and the methods they employ. In part two of the book, “Twentieth-Century Challenges in Japan,” Reid reasons that the Mormon model’s failure to adapt to circumstances on the ground in Japan account for its failure compared to the larger successes of other American Protestant faiths. Reid’s critique of Mormon missionary work is frank and forthright in grappling with the difficulties Mormon missionaries faced (or brought with them) in Japan before withdrawing before World War II. He argues against the hypothesis that President Grant received a revelation to bring missionaries out prior to the war. Perhaps the book’s most important contribution is distinguishing an imposing versus an integrating approach of missionary work: “The Mormons, who basically imposed or translated their message, struggled to make headway in Japan, while the American Protestants converted tens of thousands of Japanese, due in large part to their greater willingness to adapt their missionary approach to the needs of East Asia” (119).

Throughout the book Reid is conscious of a broad audience. For instance, he spends more ink on LDS details often glossed over in other works such as the practice of dedicatory prayers, briefly touching on their origins and significance for Latter-day Saints (77-80).

Early Mormon Missionary Activities in Japan, 1901-1924 is a crucial contribution to Mormon Studies, broadening the scope from the typically-discussed western United States to the wider world of Mormonism. Broader missiology scholars will welcome its bringing Mormon missionary work into the fold. Former LDS missionaries, especially those who served in different cultures and learned new languages, will be interested in the inner-workings of an early twentieth-century mission. Reid discusses literature and translation, tracting and street meetings, convert baptism and retention problems, jingoism and nationalism, polygamy, magic lantern shows, sporting activities, finances, and many other aspects of missionary life. It is a well-documented and well-argued comparison of LDS missionary efforts to the broader Christian desire to “teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 28:19).

  • charlie

    thanks for this great review! I think I’ll buy a copy.

    any gaps in his treatment? topics or areas he didn’t have time or space to address? anything you would critique?

  • bhodges

    Nothing immediately stuck out to me as a critical omission. It’s a brief book, without the index it only hits 150 pages. He covers the bases really well for the specified time period. The only bit I questioned was the way he treated a shift in emphasis from “spirit of Christ” to “diffusion” doctrines. He posits that pre-1893 the church employed a “spirit of Christ is given to every man” view to explain the state and possibilities for “heathens” and “pagans” and so forth, but that after encountering some religions firsthand at the World’s Parliament of Religion the emphasis shifted to a “diffusion” explanation where the gospel was given to Adam and has since passed through a series of apostasies and restorations, a dispensation sort of thing. He does note that both explanations have seeds in JS’s revelations, and he seems to confine the shift in emphasis to GQ Cannon and B.H. Roberts, but doesn’t note the usage of the diffusion explanation before them or the spirit of Christ after them, although he doesn’t deny that such is the case. That was really the only thing that struck me as needing clarification. Overall, a great book, especially in terms of showing cultural disconnects in missionary work.

  • g.wesley

    i don’t know about others, but polygamy wasn’t an aspect of my life as a missionary. there wasn’t any gamy at all, actually. maybe things are different in japan.

  • BHodges

    The mission opened shortly after the Manifesto and the controversy about post-manifesto polygamy, etc., so it was a pretty common attack in the Japanese press and a concern from some Japanese living in the United states who were corresponding with Church officials on opening the mission.

  • Conan Grames

    I am in Japan and would like to purchase of copy of the book. I can have it sent to my home in Utah and my kids will bring it for Christmas. Any suggestions about the easiest way to buy this book from here?

  • BHodges

    Conan, Amazon’s got it here:

  • BHodges

    my international Internet knowledge is lacking, though, does that work in Japan?

  • coltakashi

    I know most of the history written about the Church in Japan has focused on the more recent period of reestablishing th Church in Japan after World War II, when it was much more successful (compared to the pre-1924 period). My father was a missionary during that time (1949-1952), and I served with the first group that went through two months of language training at Church College of Hawaii (now BYU-H) and served 1969-1971.

    It would be interesting to compare the varying success of missionary efforts within the Church in Japan at various periods, and with that of other Christian groups, as well as with the, in many ways similar, efforts in Korea. Korea has welcomed Christianity with much more enthusiasm than Japan has, though as far as I know, the success of the LDS Church in both nations is comparable. As we look forward to the time when China might be opened for legal LDS proselyting, it is worth pondering whether the aspects of LDS missionary efforts in Asia that hinder it in comparison with other Christian groups are necessary aspects of the Gospel or only policies or cultural traditions that could be adjusted.