This text is re-posted from “New Views into Missionary History,” Church News, July 16, 2017.
As soon as the Church was organized in 1830, its members set out to preach the gospel to family, friends and neighbors. One hundred years later, nearly 38,000 men and women had served proselytizing missions for the Church. Now, almost two centuries after the first preaching, a new database provides fresh new insights about the earliest missionaries.
The Church History Library’s Early Mormon Missionaries database, online at history.lds.org/missionary, attempts to document every proselytizing missionary who served during the first century of the Church’s history. The database currently lists nearly 38,000 individuals with links to thousands of original and authoritative records of missionary experience. The database can be searched by name or by mission to find stories, photos and sources of early Mormon missionaries.
Here are five things we learn from this powerful new resource:
1. Many were called and repeaters were welcomed.
In the first century of missionary work, 37,567 individuals served proselytizing missions. Samuel H. Smith was among 16 who departed in 1830, the year the Church was organized. The youngest missionary left for service at age 14 while the oldest left at age 83. The database also contains 143 mission presidents and their wives.
Additionally, the database documents 41,769 missions served between 1830 and 1930. The difference between missionaries and missions served means that many missionaries served more than once. In fact, 3,097 missionaries served more than one mission. Orson Pratt Sr. served the most with 24 missions between ages 19 and 67, throughout the eastern United States and Canada, the Midwest, four times to Britain, and once each to Europe and Austria. The award for the longest mission served goes to Samuel O. Bennion for 28 years as president of the Central States Mission.
2. Early missionaries carried the gospel across the world.
During the last few decades of the twentieth century, it became common to speak of the Church as a global church, but the foundation of this worldwide reach began in the earliest years.
Missionaries first left the United States to take the gospel to Canada, adjacent to New York, and to Indians, who had been pushed westward outside of federal territory. In 1837, the British Mission was established and by 1844, the year of Joseph Smith’s assassination, additional missions had been organized in the Eastern States and Tahiti. By the middle of the 1850s, formal missions had been established in Europe (1850), Australia (1851), India (1851), China (1853), and South Africa (1853). Outside of formal missions, individual missionaries had preached in Palestine (1841), Jamaica (1841), and Chile (1851). One hundred years after the Church was organized, formal missions existed in 36 countries with missionaries preaching in 22 languages.
3. Sister missionary numbers rose rapidly.
The first two single, female missionaries to be called and set apart for proselytizing — Amanda Inez Knight and Lucy Jane Brimhall — served in England in 1898. Before their call, more than 200 Latter-day Saint women had ventured into the field, some accompanying their husbands on proselytizing missions, while others were called to conduct genealogical research or study at distant universities.
But the formal calling of sister missionaries — known as “lady missionaries” in the earliest years — transformed the mission experience. The database documents 2,796 sister missionaries who served between 1898 and 1930, numbers which grew over time. In the Central States Mission, for example, the percentage of missionaries who were women rose from 2 percent in the 1900s to 11 percent in the 1910s, peaking at 36 percent in 1918 during World War I.
4. Missionaries left many records.
The Early Mormon Missionaries database assembles thousands of missionary journals, correspondence, photographs, sermons, histories and reports. By far the most popular set of records are handwritten letters sent by missionaries to presidents to accept their calls. Often the letters describe family situations and detail sacrifices the missionaries made to serve. Sometimes there is a note acknowledging that the letter was read by Wilford Woodruff or Joseph F. Smith.
Many missions hosted their own periodicals, rich with information about mission life — the Millennial Star (British Mission), Der Stern (Swiss and German Mission), Te Karere (New Zealand), Te Hereuraa Api (Tahiti), and Liahona, the Elder’s Journal (Central States).
If your family maintains records of a missionary ancestor, you may contact the Church History Library through the database to identify the best way to share your records to help document the early missionary experience.
5. Missionaries had fun (and took pictures).
Because missionaries regularly served in large cities with photography studios, they often sat for portraits and some carried photographic equipment in their travels. Thousands of photos in the database portray missionaries in meetings, on bicycles or on the streets. They took photos of themselves cooking, doing laundry, and reading. And they also had fun. Visit the database online to find photographs of missionaries wearing kilts or boxing gloves, stacked four high on each other’s shoulders, riding an old-fashioned flying machine or posing with dolls and teddy bears.
This year, the Early Mormon Missionaries database has been integrated with FamilySearch, linking the trees of FamilySearch users with the missionaries in the database. The database was created by the Church History Department, in partnership with the Missionary Department, FamilySearch and the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University. It is one of several products produced by the Church History Department that cater to family historians, including the Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel database, the premier source for information about the 19th-century Mormon migration.