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Three score and ten or more

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Mormon Missionaries

Mormon Missionaries.

I  stated when I commented on ”someone’s” blog that involved Mormon Missionaries that I would tell some missionary tales (all true – as I remember them, acknowledging that when you pass seventy, some of your memories shift.)  There are a number of really strange misapprehensions about Mormon Missionaries.  Some think of them as fanatic brain washed zombies out to brain-wash the rest of the population.  For others, the only thing they know is that they (mostly) go in pairs and are likely to show up at inconvenient times.  It is also thought by some that being a missionary is a “requirement” of some sort, like an initiation that young men go through in order to achieve some kind of mystic goal.

The truth is, that they are mostly like any other guys or girls of their age.  I can’t tell exactly what happens to current missionaries because I served my mission from 1954-57, and things were different then than they are now.  (I do have the advantage of watching the experience of three of my four sons who served their own missions, though that too was some time ago- - my youngest son is over forty now)  When I was a missionary the preparation process was much different than it is now.  It was true then as it is now, that some who would like to go on missions are not allowed to do so, that some go for personal reasons that are less than helpful to the purpose of the mission, and that some never have the desire to go and don’t.  

Missionaries in 1954 had to be at least nineteen years of age, and most were twenty or over.  The average missionary who had any college education at all had two years of college.  Current missionaries may submit an application (called generically “their papers”) fairly soon after becoming eighteen, though most are at least nineteen when they get out there.  Many have no college training, most have no more than one year.  Every one my age, going on a mission, was interviewed about his desires by his local Bishop, by his Stake President (Diocesan leader), then by a General Authority of the church. (more often than not, one of the twelve apostles who served as the central leadership of the entire church.).  These interviews concerned faith and belief in the gospel as taught by the LDS church, the reason for going on a mission, willingness to abide by mission regulations, financial ability to complete the mission (Missionaries then, as now were expected to either pay their own expenses or to receive support by their families.)  It was true then, though less so now, that some of the mission candidates were “encouraged” to go on missions in a (sometimes futile) attempt to “straighten them out”.

  Current missionaries are interviewed for much the same information by the local Bishop and Stake President, before papers are submitted and those who are obviously sent to “reform them” are discouraged from going.,  They are set apart before they leave home. Then, they were expected to pay most of their travel expenses going TO the mission, though the church, generally paid for the return trip home, I think that such is generally true today, but they probably pay a lower percentage of their travel.  Overseas missionaries generally went by rail to a port city nearest their mission field, then by ship to the Mission field (Nation).  The trip, in my case, took almost two weeks.

Nowadays, missionaries get on a plane and are at their designated mission field in less than twenty four hours.  Missionaries “then” were set apart (made official Missionaries) after they completed a training period in Salt Lake City.  Missionaries now are set apart before they actually leave home.  Training in my time was less formal or intensive than it is now.

The following is a copy of a memoir I wrote about my training at Salt Lake headquarters.  Note particularly that not one word in memoir deals with language training.  The acknowledgment of the difficulty in dealing with an entire new language was in the fact that an English speaking Elder was called to serve for two years, and a foreign speaking one was called for thirty months, or two and a half years.

At any rate, I instigated the idea of a mission call with the Bishop.  The interview was completed, followed by an interview with the Stake President, President Anderson, then some time later, at a Stake Conference by Apostle LeGrande Richards.   I assume that missionaries back then had to fill out the same kinds of forms they do now, but I don’t really remember the forms.  I just remember going through the interviews and waiting impatiently for a call, and being totally shocked (and pleased, I think) that the call was to go to Finland.  I was also surprised that my call was to be in the mission home in Salt Lake City in early September.  Somehow,   I had expected another month or so to prepare.

I am not sure of the exact date of the call, (found my Journal, it was July 13, 1954)  but some things stood out.  The Stake President Anderson’s son, Mark, (who was to serve as the Finnish Mission President some years later,) had returned from a mission in Finland only a year or so earlier, so President Anderson had many stories to tell about the country.   He remarked that his son Gale who was in my high school graduating class had hoped to receive a call to Finland, but didn’t.  I received, what seemed to be, an enormous list of things to take with me with the clarifying information that Finland had not yet fully recovered from World War II and there was considerable scarcity in the country.  

My parents were not the richest people on the block, so one of the deciding factors in buying suits was price.  Mom was a seamstress so she knew what to look for in quality, but style was secondary to price.  One suit, which was the mainstay of the three that were taken was a dark blue single breasted suit that would still be in style today.  One was a light blue glen plaid double breasted which made me look like a cheap used car salesman.  I honestly can’t remember the third, but I remember being less than thrilled with its appearance.  I was also required to take a heavy overcoat.  What I found was an army surplus canvas trench coat (in army green) with a zip-out lining.  It was heavy and warm, and not new, so I don’t have any idea where I got it.  I was required to take a hat, either snap brim or fedora, so I took a brown snap brim with quite a wide brim.  I was also told to take four pairs of winter long underwear and four short legged summer ones.  Mother was suspicious about the quantity and sent extras of both kinds along with some pull-over-the-top-of everything else insulated underwear.

As we were preparing, I got a letter from a sister in Preston, Idaho, I think (it might have been Montpelier) explaining that her son, Bill Wilson (who was to become a nationally known folklorist and a power in the English Department at BYU) was in  Finland, and he had sent her my name and address.  The request was to bring a LARGE size can or bottle of peanut butter with me, for him, and she would buy it and pay me to carry it.  I was also, if I was willing, to take six bars of Dial soap and two large tubes of Colgate toothpaste.  We talked to her on the phone and she said that all of these things were either in short supply or of a quality that didn’t match American tastes, and that peanut butter was the thing most often requested.  We had the same information about soap and toothpaste (and toothbrushes) from the church so we agreed to take these things for him and bought a good supply for me.  My mother said “If peanut butter is in such demand, we probably ought to send a big bottle for you as well.”  

You have heard the term “famous last words”, and I said them “Mom, if there is anything I can get along without for two and a half years, it is peanut butter”.   I ate those words many times over the years, and she ended up sending peanut butter by mail which made it almost prohibitively expensive.  For a suitcase, I ended up with an enormous U.S. army issue zipper garment bag with multiple pockets for almost everything.  The rest of my stuff went into a black footlocker (which I still had many years later.  I am not sure what happened to it, it was almost indestructible) and the biggest briefcase I could find.  Looking back, I am pretty sure that current missionaries wouldn’t have been allowed to take most of the clothing I took, but they were (apparently, since they didn’t make me send it back) more tolerant at that time.  But we were told to take everything with us.

The pattern was to go to Salt Lake to what was called the “mission home” for two weeks, then to travel by rail to New York City, and take a ship from New York to Finland.  We were supposed to pay a percentage  of our travel going out, and that the church would pay our homeward trip in full.  Since Dad was a railroad man, he got me a pass on the train to New York, and that covered part, if not all, of our share of travel..

Missionary farewells were a far different thing then, than they are now.   Farewells now are held during Sacrament meeting, in the chapel, and consist of talks by some of the people who love the prospective missionary, by the missionary, and usually by the Bishop, or one of the members of the Bishopric.  Farewells then were held on a week night, sometimes partly in the chapel and partly in the Cultural Hall.  Mine was, I think, like that.  I seem to remember a partial service in the Chapel, with appropriate talks, the ward clerk sitting by to take donations to the missionary, and we had a “mission tree”, a leafless tree, about five feet tall, covered with clothes pins.  Attached to one or two of the clothes pins were dollar bills, five dollar bills, etc., as a hint to the audience.  In other words there was both a spiritual and mercenary cast to the farewell.  I don’t remember much of the talks, and I am not sure how much money came in, though I think it was probably over a hundred dollars, which was quite a lot in those days.  What I remember best was a festive food table in the Cultural Hall and a performance in my honor by the bi-stake Mormon Men’s chorus (I can’t remember the name, it might have been the Ambassadors) I was a member of the chorus and sang in my own concert.  A side note was that the man standing beside me in the chorus was a local lawyer named Merrill Beale who became, first a Federal District Judge, and later a Judge in one of the Federal Appeals courts.  He was also a really good bass.  As a result of the Chorus and my being in it, I think I may have been the only elder that year who wore a white dinner jacket, a formal shirt with studs, and a Red cummerbund    to his farewell.

The trip to Salt Lake was like a caravan.  The bishop and his wife, and dad and mom, and my brother, Doug, and our home teachers, all schlepping off to Salt Lake on Sept 7, 1954.  The pictures of that time are pretty funny, all of us standing in rows with really cheesy grins.  I am not sure why those pictures are the worst.

Entering the mission home was expected, but it was a shock as well.  I have often thought of the type of preparation that missionaries receive today, with missionaries being set apart before they leave their home stakes,  foreign speaking missionaries receiving a couple of months of intensive language training in addition to training in proselyting etc.  

We were in and out of the Mission home in less than two weeks. We weren’t set apart till after the Mission Home experience was over.  When we got to the Mission Home, We learned to lead singing and beat time.  We were introduced to the portable flannel board, and given pictures to cut out for each lesson and we were given the first couple of lessons of the Prayer and Testimony plan, which seemed to me, in some ways, to parallel the sales process I had learned for Lifetime Stainless Steel cookware. (The class in teaching was called “Methodology for Proselyting.)  A general authority (I can’t remember who) taught us personal hygiene which included covering the toilet seat with paper, boiling water before use (especially in the areas south of the United States) trying not to despair that some toilet facilities were primitive (he even said that toilet facilities in Japan, while hard to get used to, were more sanitary than most countries.  I really didn’t understand until my son Ryan went to Japan, and, in one letter, described Japanese toilet facilities. )  We went to the temple almost every day.  My sole exposure to the Finnish language was a mimeographed ten or so page handout that had been written by one of the missionaries who was then in the country. We lived in a kind of bunkhouse on the second floor, (not of the temple, but the mission home) and enjoyed watching the General Authorities drive into the parking lot below and go to their offices.  One thing that stood out in my mind was that most of the General Authorities had big new looking cars, and Albert E. Bowen (who I recognized because his brother lived in our ward) drove a 1941 Plymouth, much like my parents car.  I am not sure why the difference, but it was pronounced.

This is getting too long, but you probably get the idea.  I will wait a few weeks and tell you something about the trip to Finland, or some of my first weeks as a missionary. (I have already told you, in early posts something about my first experience in the Finnish Sauna, and about my first winter in Joensuu, Finland.  It is a wonder that I got out of there alive.


At 9:02 PM, Blogger Gayle said...

Where you are concerned, John, there is no such thing as "too long." At least not to my mind.

I have a question for you. I lived in Salt Lake City when I was 9. At least I think I was nine. We moved around so much back then with my father following the gold mines (don't ask why we were in Salt Lake City. I don't know. There weren't any gold mines there.) that I'm not exactly sure where I was when. But I remember living there at either the age of 9 or 10, and I had a girl friend who was a Mormon, a religion I knew very little about. I've done some reading in the years since, but still wouldn't be an expert by a long shot.

Anyway, my friend's name was Aftan Ann (I'm good at remembering names. I remember everyone's name I ever met) and she was an only child. Her mom and dad were Mormons. She always wore an undergarment, like a t-shirt without sleeves, or maybe it had short sleeves, I'm not certain, but she said she could never take it completely off. I remember asking her "what do you do when you take a bath?" Most people had bathtubs then, not showers. She told me she pulled it up around her neck, bathed, and when she got out she stepped into the dry one after she dried off, pulled it up, and removed the wet one around her neck. That's why I don't think it had sleeves. It had to have been something like a mans undershirt, the old-fashioned ones, in order for her to do that.

Do you have a clue as to what I am talking about? I've wondered about this all of my life. I haven't found a Mormon yet who could answer me!

Blessings. Your post was quite interesting and I'm sorry... I apologize for getting off the beaten track here, but I do believe you can understand it. I'm still searching for an answer to this question.

At 11:05 PM, Blogger Three Score and Ten or more said...

Gayle. Some Mormons do wear unusual underwear, but not as children. At the time when you go through the temple (usually marriage age or thereabouts) you may (if you wish)receive a blessing and are given what Mormons call garments. I like to think that Catholic and Protestant clergy wear a "uniform" to let others know who they are. Mormons wear an "under uniform" to remind THEM who they are and what obligations they owe themselves and the Almighty. Some Mormons (not many) try to keep constant contact with the garments, but on basketball players and swimmers they would look a little silly. (Your friend's name was probably Afton, a common Mormon name in my youth)

At 12:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Richard: I am doing a research paper on Mormon culture change - specifically missionary farewells - and an hoping to get you permission to use a paragraph from your blog, the part where you describe your farewell, the cultural hall and the money tree. Your web-site will be listed in my bibliography. thank you


At 10:45 AM, Blogger Don White said...

Gayle, I labored in Finland under Presidents Phileon Robinson and John Warner from 1958-61 and when I left from Salt Lake City in 1958 much of what you described was the same--including the two-story mission home bunkhouse, the donations (I got about $100 also)at the farewell, though all of it was in the chapel. We did take a lot of clothing including long-john garmets and the hat which we discarded halfway through the mission. Elders George McComber, Don Wagstaff, Groberg, Johnson, and Doug Hardy of Canada all came over on the SS Stockholm to Gothinberg, thence by rail to Stockholm, by ferry to Turkuu, Finland and down to Helsinki. I served primarily in Lappenranta, Helsinki, Oulu, and opened Kemi and was Branch President in Koukola. Your article was excellent and complete. Keep up the good work. I was educated at the University of Utah in journalism, later got a law degree and worked many years in the P&C insurance industry, last serving for 8 years as president/CEO of Western National Mutual Insurance Company, a 24-state firm with offices in Minneapolis and Seattle. I played baseball in college and had a $10,000 bonus offer to join the Pittsburg Pirate organization--that was a lot of money in those days--and I turned it down to go on a mission. I'm glad I did. My wife and I have held a temple recommend all these 43 years of marriage and use it. I had graduated from college by the time I left, so there were a lot of leadership opportunities including District President and traveling elder, as well as Mission Historian and assistant editor of the Valkeus along with Don Woodward. I worked for some magazines, and was an AP newsman in Salt Lake. My wife, Carolyn, and I were married in the Manti Temple in 1965 and we have four marvelous children, all now living in Florida where we now live. I was just released as high priest group leader and am employment director in the Windermere Ward which is part of the Orlando South Stake, located across the street from the LDS Temple where I worked for several years until health problems made it impossible. I do a lot of freelance writing and tend 18 blogs including
and several others.
I met a Todd Smith last Sunday visiting from Utah who served under Pres. Melvin Luthy, who was in the mission when I was there, 2nd counselor. It's a small world.Elder Luthy was a missionary's missionary. The best.

Hope to see you sometime in Orlando soon. Our Ward currently meets at 1 p.m. but we'll go to the 9 a.m. time in January.
Nakeimeen, Veli Johnson
and kindest regards, Don White

my email, if anyone wants to get in touch is

At 4:40 AM, Blogger Christine said...

Do you have a photo of the way you looked/dressed, church name tag, during that time on your mission? I'm trying to imagine my husbands dad on his mission- we still have his old steamer trunk he used during his mission and took across the ocean.

Thanks - Michelle


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