History of Missionary Work in the Church

News Release

Several days after the 6 April 1830 organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith called his younger brother Samuel to serve as the first missionary for the fledgling organization.

From Samuel Smith’s 1830 call as the first missionary until June 2007, one million missionaries — young men, young women, retired couples and older single women — have represented the Church throughout the world. At present, 145 of the world’s 239 nations have proselytizing Latter-day Saint missionaries serving within their boundaries.

In the years 1830 to 1899, it is estimated that about 12,827 missionaries were called to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. From 1900 to 1950, the total number increased to 50,143. From 1951 through 1989, about 402,372 missionaries served. Since 1990, however, approximately 534,658 missionaries — or more than half of all missionaries who have ever served — have accepted the responsibility to share the message of the Church of Jesus Christ.

The younger Smith, according to a record kept by his mother, Lucy Mack Smith, traveled more than 25 miles on his first day’s journey and was “turned out of doors as soon as he declared his principles.” Though Smith’s initial missionary efforts to share the messages of the newly published Book of Mormon found little success, he did place a copy of the book that eventually reached Brigham Young and his brother Phineas. The Youngs both accepted the teachings and aligned themselves with the newly formed Church.

Missionary work quickly assumed prominence in the early days of the Church. In October 1830, some six months following Samuel Smith’s efforts, four men were invited to teach the American Indians. Oliver Cowdery, Parley P. Pratt, Peter Whitmer Jr. and Ziba Peterson embarked on a journey to the western frontier, stopping to teach in Kirtland, Ohio, before struggling on to Missouri. Pratt reported the group “traveled on foot for three hundred miles through vast prairies and through trackless wilds of snow — no beaten road, houses few and far between and the bleak northwest wind always blowing in our faces.” The group covered about 1,500 miles, mostly on foot, as they crossed the countryside during the winter. Though their specific assignment to teach the “Lamanites” proved challenging, several hundred people in northeast Ohio did join the Church as a result of their labors.

Subsequent missionaries served briefly in Canada, but the first mission overseas was fulfilled by Heber C. Kimball and Orson Hyde in 1837, who began the work in the British Isles. On a subsequent mission, leaders of the Church — eight members of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles and others — departed for British missionary service in April 1839. Thousands of people converted to the Church as a result of this effort. Many immigrated to the United States during the 1840s, bringing strength to the Church organization during difficult circumstances.

During the 1850s missionaries served in Chile, France, Germany, Gibraltar, Hawaii, India, Italy, Malta, Scandinavia, South Africa, the South Pacific and Switzerland. By the turn of the century, additional missions in Mexico, Samoa, Tahiti and Turkey were added. By 1903, nine more countries were opened to the work.

The first single female missionaries served during this time. Inez Knight and Lucy Jane (Jennie) Brimhall were called as proselytizing missionaries in April 1898. Brimhall described their unique service. “In the evening,” she said,” we [with the elders] went on the street for meetings. On a busy corner we formed a circle, sang a hymn, one offered prayer then we sang again. A large crowd stopped to listen.”

Under assignment from Heber J. Grant, president of the Church from 1918 to 1945, David O. McKay, then a member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, embarked on a 56,000-mile survey of all Church missions in 1920 and 1921. He stopped in New Zealand, Australia, Asia, India, Egypt and Europe.

By 1926, another member of the Twelve, Melvin J. Ballard, established a mission in Buenos Aires, Argentina, noting that “the work of the Lord will grow slowly here for a time … but the day will come when the South American Mission will be a power in the Church.”

Missionary teaching methods and preparation expanded under the administration of David O. McKay, president of the Church from 1951 until 1970. A seminar for newly called mission presidents was first held in 1961, while a six-lesson teaching plan and an “every member a missionary” program were implemented that same year. In addition, language training as a part of missionary preparation began with the Spanish language on the campus of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, but expanded to a number of languages at the Provo Language Training Center in 1963 and again at the Missionary Training Center in 1978. Currently, more than 80 percent of missionaries are trained in language and teaching skills at the training center in Provo, but others report to training centers at 16 additional locations throughout the world.

During his tenure as president of the Church, 1973–1985, Spencer W. Kimball emphasized that “every able, worthy young man should serve a mission,” a guideline that more than doubled the missionary force in 12 years.

Church membership growth and an increased emphasis on the importance of missionary work again doubled the volunteer force during the 1990s. In addition to young men and women serving, added encouragement was given to service of retired couples.

As the number of missionaries and the number of members increased, a new standard for missionary service was introduced in 2003. Gordon B. Hinckley, Church president since 1995, instructed: “Missionary work is rigorous. It demands strength and vitality. It demands mental sharpness and capacity. ... It demands faith, desire, and consecration. The time has come when we must raise the standards of those who are called.” President Hinckley also instructed Church members to double their efforts in assisting the missionaries serving in their neighborhoods.

In 2005, a new teaching strategy, outlined in a guidebook called Preach My Gospel, was implemented in missions throughout the world. Using the new guidelines, missionaries now teach gospel principles with a stronger spiritual focus rather than reciting memorized lessons.

At present, missionaries teach the gospel in nearly 170 different languages and have access to copies of the Book of Mormon in 106 of those languages, a far cry from Samuel Smith’s humble beginnings as the first missionary of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Style Guide Note:When reporting about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, please use the complete name of the Church in the first reference. For more information on the use of the name of the Church, go to our online Style Guide.