Seventeen-year-old Matthew Timion was smoking a cigarette out his bedroom window when he heard a knock at the door. He’d just moved across the country with his mother and stepfather, a militant atheist. The recent death of his alcoholic father had left him with many questions about life, death and faith. Without looking, he somehow knew the visitors at the door were Mormon missionaries. He later interpreted this as a sign from God.
“Mormonism came as a white horse,” Timion says. “They talked about families that can be together forever, life after death, the purpose of life. And there was an instant community. [For] someone like myself, who has father issues, this church run by men ready to give you a pat on the back filled every need I had.”
The missionaries Timion met that day guided him through the conversion process. Two years later, Timion embarked on a mission himself.
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Non-Mormons are used to hiding from pairs of clean-cut young men in name tags and dark suits. But few of us understand what’s it’s like to be inside those suits, knocking on doors and approaching strangers in public to discuss their most deeply held beliefs.
Since the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was founded in 1830, over one million Mormons have gone on missions. In March 2014 alone, there were 85,039 full-time missionaries serving at 405 missions around the world. Sixty-four percent of those missionaries were young men, 28 percent were young women, and 8 percent were seniors, who are defined in church literature to be worshippers who have left the workforce.
"It's ridiculous to put eternal salvation in the hands of 19-year-olds who view it as a competition of who can baptize more people.”
For young men growing up in Mormon communities, the pressure to go on a mission is enormous. Open any newspaper in Utah and you’ll find farewell and homecoming announcements. An advertisement in The Universe, Brigham Young University’s campus newspaper, offers a free pre-mission dental exam. One missionary we spoke to had his wisdom teeth removed as a farewell gift from his Mormon dentist.
Russell Beckstead*, is the ninth of ten siblings, six of whom had served before Russell was old enough to serve on a mission. In the small Idaho town where he grew up, 66 percent of the county was Mormon, and time was marked by the comings and goings of missionaries.
“If you’re a man in the church and you didn’t serve a mission, that immediately raises eyebrows,” Beckstead explains. “Your prospects of getting a mate are linked directly to whether or not you served an honorable mission. A common joke is that the more people you preach the gospel to, the more attractive your future wife will be.”
Even more than mainstream Christianity, Mormonism emphasizes the importance of evangelism. One of Joseph Smith’s revelations in the Doctrine & Covenants, an LDS foundational document, reads, “Ye shall go forth in the power of my Spirit, preaching my gospel [...], declaring my word like unto angels.”
During our interview, Beckstead pulls a laminated card from his pocket. “This is a priesthood line of authority. Jesus gave the priesthood to Peter, James, and John, who gave it to Joseph Smith, who gave it to these guys, and these guys gave it to these guys, all the way down to me. There’s a direct line of authority from Jesus Christ to me. And so I really believed, on my mission, that I was an official, legal representative of Jesus Christ.”
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All missionaries report to one of 15 missionary training centers throughout the world at the start of their mission. The largest training center, in Provo, Utah, stretches several miles alongside BYU and accommodates up to 4,000 missionaries-in-training who are called “Elders” and “Sisters.” For up to 12 weeks, they receive classroom instruction in foreign languages, theology, and conversational strategies, guided by Preach My Gospel, while the Missionary Handbook outlines acceptable language, dress, conduct, tithing, and relationships. Several missionaries described the training center as “boot camp” for its spiritual and emotional “breakdowns” and highlighted its rigorous sixteen-hour schedule—the same hours missionaries keep throughout their time abroad.
“It was like a college dorm with a bunch of clean-cut men that all look the same,” says Timion, the missionary who converted at age 17. “A clone center. They let you know that everything you’ve done is a sin. All these 19-year-old boys and 21-year-old girls feel horrible about themselves, and confess and are forgiven. It was a very, very long, miserable experience that I wouldn’t want to relive.”
The missionary training center is also a missionary’s first experience of companionship—having an assigned companion by your side 24 hours a day, seven days a week, as you dress, bathe, study, eat, and sleep. If you want to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, you have to wake your companion and have him stand guard outside the door. “Your missionary companion is there to keep you on the straight and narrow path, so you don’t let Satan win,” Timion says.
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Russell Beckstead’s older siblings were called to exotic locations, including the Caribbean, northern Europe, and eastern Germany immediately following the fall of the Berlin Wall. “And then I was called to Indiana!” Beckstead laughs.
“In Indiana, there was this line everybody would use. They would say, ‘There’s two things that I don’t talk to anybody about: politics and religion. Now get outta here.’ I heard that line I don’t know how many times.”
Missionaries provide progress numbers to their mission leaders, who in turn report up a hierarchical structure: How many people they talk to, how many copies of the Book of Mormon they distribute, how many baptisms they’ve performed, and so on. All of the missionaries we spoke to mentioned how rare baptisms were, and how much guilt they felt as a result. "You’re like, man, we only talked to four people this whole week. We must be horrible missionaries," Beckstead says. "And they—the assistants, and the zone leaders and the president—they try really hard to convince you that they don’t care about the numbers. They’re like, ‘Oh, it’s not about the numbers, elders. It’s not about the numbers … but what are the numbers?!'"
And those numbers were frequently dismal. “The most typical experience was just a door slammed in your face,” Beckstead says. “Somebody sees that you’ve got a nametag on, and you’re in a tie and a white shirt, and the door immediately closes.”