Spreading the Faith

Harvard Mormons Take Time off to Recruit

Long before he ever dreamt of attending Harvard. Eric Carter '84 had his sights set on being a missionary. Raised as a devout Mormon. Carter was guided by his father's example, not in his choice of colleges, but rather in his decision to drop everything and go out converting souls.

"I had grown up in the church, studying the teachings since I was a little kid," Carter recalls. "My father had been a missionary in Norway, and I used to love to hear his stories, so I had always expected to go on a mission."

To those not brought in the fold, the word "missionary" evokes a peculiar response. Some people conjure up images of civilized, altruistic Christians devoting their lives to instructing ignorant tribesmen in the rudiments of modern medicine. Others think in terms of the colonial exploitation of an economically dependent Third World. But negative stereotypes do not daunt the Church of Latter-Day Saints, popularly known as the Mormon Church, which currently boasts a missionary population of 32,000-35,000 youths.

Dr. Alan Parrish of the Harvard Institute of Religion explains that the church uses missions as a means of spreading the gospel and as an invaluable learning experience for missionaries. Young Mormon men are strongly urged--but, contrary to common belief, are not required--to fulfill a mission when they are between the ages of 19 and 26. Nearly all of them do, and Harvard undergraduates are no exception. Of the 50 to 60 active Mormons in the College, virtually every male spends two years as a missionary after his freshman or sophomore year.

Until several months ago, the Church was conspicuously mute on the issue of female missionaries. This silence sheds light on a fundamental tenet of Mormon gospel. Marriage and child-rearing are extolled both as a sacred duty and as the source of great personal fulfillment, and the average age at marriage among Mormons is considerably lower than the American national average. To be female and to spend one's marriageable years as a missionary, therefore, was tacitly to admit one's lack of suitors--and, by extension, one's failure to fulfill the highest purpose of any Mormon.


Very recently, with the mean age of newlyweds rising in Mormon communities, the Church has begun to encourage its young women to undertake missions. It remains to be seen whether the policy shift will have significant effects. So far, only a very few Harvard women have served as missionaries.

The application process for would-be missionaries is complex. When they return home for Christmas vacation, students are interviewed by their bishop (the Mormon counterpart of the Catholic priest or the Jewish rabbi) and then by their state president, who presides over roughly ten congregations. Approximately one-third of all such students reach the second stage: sending written applications--along with the results of a general language exam--to the Missionary Committee, based in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The Committee then matches student applications with requests for missionaries filed by 180 missions located throughout the world, in every country which permits their establishment. Youths who score poorly on the language exam are sent to countries with relatively simple languages. Harvard students tend to acquit themselves very well and often receive missions in the Far East. Once accepted, prospective missionaries spend two months at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, where returned missionaries teach them the language of their assigned country.

The costs of missions are underwritten primarily by the missionaries and their families, although the Church does finance round-trip transportation out of a till to which every missionary contributes just $100. Because the burden of supporting a child for two years, usually in a foreign country, has proved too great for many families, in April 1982 the Church shortened the duration of all missions from two years to 18 months.

ALTHOUGH THEY SYMPATHIZE with the Church's concern for family finances, the four returned Harvard missionaries interviewed regret the abbreviation of the mission. Every one stressed the difficulty of learning a new language in just a few months. "We don't get very much in two months. I'm afraid. You get a basic grasp on the grammar, and some vocabulary," says John Finlayson '84, who fulfilled his mission in Tokyo. John Beck '83, who was located in Kyushu, Japan, adds, "I was there for two months before I could understand the Japanese when they spoke."

The Harvard Mormons agree on more than just the issue of shorter missions. Their experiences as missionaries appear remarkably similar. In part, their community of experience reflects the fact that Mormon missionaries throughout the world adhere to identical schedules and perform nearly identical activities. Six days a week they awaken at 4:30 a.m. and then spend three hours studying the Bible, proselytizing skills and the language of their mission country. From 9:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. they engage in teaching the gospel to anyone who is interested. Teaching continues until 9:00 p.m., when the missionaries eat dinner; by 10:30 p.m. they must be in bed, preferably asleep.

Teaching takes place in missionaries' apartments, in Mormon churches, and--most frequently--in "students" homes. Missionaries find students by using the-old-fashioned door-to-door method, although Parrish says "it's going out of style," by setting up informational bulletin boards in public places, by approaching people in parks and universities, and by relying upon a snowball effect through which each student interests a few of his friends in attending teaching sessions. Students in Oriental countries are primarily the young: older people are too bound to traditional morals and religions to embrace a new faith.

The similarities among different missionaries' experiences also reflect the depth of a belief which prompted them to dedicate two years of their lives to sharing their convictions with other people. Finlayson explains that he wanted to give something to other people and thought that being a missionary was the best way to accomplish that aim.

For Beck, who grew up in Provo, Utah, the decision to undertake a mission was more complex. "Mormonism is a social thing in Utah: I went through the motions in high school, but it wasn't until I got to Harvard that I began to have real faith. I started to see a lot of logic in things that I had ben doing without knowing why, like resting on Sundays and not smoking or drinking. In a way, I started proselytizing to my roommates before I decided to do a mission."

Beck's analysis of his increased commitment to the Church during freshman year provides a rare glimpse into one possible aspect of missions: that of implicit coercion. "My family had expected me to go on a mission since birth, and of course that was one of the reasons I started thinking about it." Beck says. "It's hard to say, but I think even if I hadn't gotten more deeply involved I would have done a mission." Peer and parental presure in favor of missions are great among Mormon communities.