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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
After the first few months of his mission in England, Adam Ballard*, 19, born and raised in Provo, Utah, began to question if he genuinely believed in the only system of faith he’d ever known. He realized one of his roommates had gone on a mission to escape his abusive father, and that others struggled with depression, suicidal thoughts, and pornography addiction, which Ballard attributed to the church’s repressive stance on sexuality.
Ballard was seeing a mission-appointed counselor for anxiety. “My counselor said, ‘Elder Ballard, you can choose to be yourself and do what you believe in, or you can live a hollow life.’ I don’t think he realized what he was saying. A week later, I called my mission president and told him I was going home.”
Before he could be released, Ballard was ordered to speak to his father, his sister, and his stake president, who acts as the head of several local congregations, or "stakes." He described this as “one of the hardest things in my entire life.”
Ballard phoned his father first. “He’s like, ‘What about when Mom died? What about what you said before you left on your mission?’ And I remember telling him, ‘Dad, I lied, because I wanted to look good.’ I got off the phone and cried for two hours.”
A 2013 study at Utah Valley University found that nearly three quarters of missionaries who return home early experience a deep sense of failure. Ballard served for seven months,and received an honorable discharge for health reasons. Although he’s finding the transition difficult and his home congregation less than receptive, Ballard remains positive about the mission experience overall. “You can ‘life shop.’ You meet thousands of people who’ve lived their lives thousands of ways, people who are doctors, lawyers, janitors, who have children, who don’t have children, who are married, who aren’t married, who’ve never been married. And you can see, like, ‘Oh, that’s how I want to live my life. I want to live my life like that guy.’”
Scott Horton’s family has been Mormon for several generations. Like many missionaries, he had doubts about his faith, but he wanted to set a good example for his younger brothers, and the scriptures suggested that the mission itself was the best way to strengthen his testimony.
While an estimated 40 percent of returned missionaries become inactive sometime after completing their mission, only 2 percent become apostates, meaning that they request to have their names removed from church rolls, or are formally excommunicated. Scott Horton is among the 2 percent. Looking back, he recalls the moment when “all the lights starting firing” on his mission in Bahia Blanca, Argentina. “In my last area, I went on a regimen of studying the Book of Mormon like crazy, praying like crazy. I got to a point where I was fasting every week, wanting to get an answer. I did that for two or three months. And just nothing.”
Another turning point occurred when Horton stopped a man on the street who was an adherent to the Virgin of Guadalupe. “I said, ‘Oh, that’s really interesting. Why do you follow her?’ And he said, ‘Well, five or six years ago, I didn’t have a job and I was out of money. And I couldn’t stand to be at home and watch my daughters cry over hunger. I was walking down the road, praying, and I had no idea what to do. And I saw a light. I looked into the light and saw the Virgin. She told me that everything would be okay, and that she was looking out for me and would provide for me. And when I looked down, below the light, there was 20 pesos on the ground. I picked it up and bought bread and milk for my daughters. I’ll always remember that, and I will never move away from her.’
“I was dumbfounded. I thanked him for sharing that story with me and let him go on his way. I remember thinking, I have nothing that even compares to something that spiritual, that profound. Who was I to stand out here telling people what to do? You start to recognize how ridiculous it is to put people’s eternal salvation in the hands of 19-year-olds who are viewing it as a competition of who can baptize more people.”
Russell Beckstead, now in his mid-thirties, remains an active member of the Church. He still accompanies missionaries every week as a model of non-missionary fellowship—what he refers to as “being a normal person.”
Beckstead is uncomfortable with the missionary promise that conversion is a cure-all. “People will talk about how they lost their job, or they have this medical problem, or their wife left them, or their kid is in trouble at school, or their parents are suffering and old. And as a missionary, your mentality is, ‘Okay, pray and read the Book of Mormon. Done.’ And I want to be like, ‘Did you not hear all these other problems?’ I still believe that faith and Jesus Christ gives people power and comfort in their lives. But it’s not going to solve their problems!”
For Beckstead and others, like Ballard and Horton, the most memorable aspect of missionary work was the connections they developed with different kinds of people—and the theological tension these connections raised. “There’s a scripture in the Book of Mormon that says, ‘The natural man is an enemy to God.’ It gets drilled into you that everybody else is secretly miserable because they’re not in the church. As a missionary, it’s your job to share the secret to happiness. And I just found that that wasn’t true. There’s lots of happy people with great lives, just trying to do the best they can.
“Maybe my faith in the institution was shocked, but my faith in humanity was boosted.
* These names have been changed to protect privacy.