During his short lifetime, the Prophet Joseph Smith began a great missionary work that was worldwide in its perspective and visionary in its purpose, said President Boyd K. Packer, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve.
"The calling of Samuel Smith in June 1830 as the first missionary was the beginning of a great missionary effort by Joseph Smith. During his lifetime he sent 35 missionaries around the world, including 18 to England . . . and eight to Canada," he said. Joseph Smith also sent missionaries to Jerusalem, French Polynesia in the Pacific, Russia and Australia.
"The remarkable thing about these early missionaries," continued President Packer in a Church News interview, "was that they carried only two things: the announcement of the Restoration, and the Book of Mormon. That's all they had. They did not yet have the revelations on the priesthood. Priesthood quorums were not yet organized."
Referring to the early sections of the Doctrine and Covenants that call for the gospel to be preached across the world, President Packer said, "All that we now know about missionary work can be traced to that beginning."
From these early missionaries, continued President Packer, come great stories of the gospel taking root around the world.
This month marks the 175-year anniversary of the first missionary effort. On June 30, 1830, Samuel Smith loaded his knapsack with the first copies of the Book of Mormon and embarked on a 25-mile trek through upstate New York .
Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the work of preaching the gospel has quietly spread over the earth.
Since Samuel slept under the apple tree on damp ground that first night has come an army of more than 905,000 missionaries who have served including President Gordon B. Hinckley who was part of a missionary force of about 1,000 in 1935.
In 1980, during the 150-year celebration of missionary work, missionaries served in 75 countries with the Book of Mormon translated in 32 languages then, a cause for celebration and gratitude.
Today, missionaries serve in 160 countries, using copies of the Book of Mormon translated into 104 languages, which includes 32 partial translations. To reach a world that is becoming more and more immune to spiritual things, a finer quality of missionary is being required.
The announcement of two new missions in Africa (see page 6) brings the total of missions to 341, confirming what President Hinckley observed in the October 2003 general conference: "the sun never sets on this work of the Lord as it is touching the lives of people across the earth."
Today, people are becoming more impenetrable by spiritual things, as Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve said during last year's mission presidents seminar.
The conditions of contemporary society have given rise to the most ambitious effort by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve in directing the missionary effort of the Church since missionary discussions were introduced in the 1950s.
Raising the bar on the quality of missionaries and introducing "Preach My Gospel," a new guide to missionary service, are improving missionary effectiveness.
"With the increase in spirituality of the missionaries," said President Le Roy S. Wirthlin of the Germany Munich/Austria Mission, "we noticed a new phenomenon; instead of the missionaries doing all the finding, we noticed that people are now seeking out the missionaries.
"They ask, 'How can I get one of those books?' Or 'When are you coming to visit?' Or even, 'What do I have to do to join your Church?'
"Although not record numbers, 30 percent of our baptisms last year were from such self-referrals. It is continuing," he said.
President Jose L. Alonso of the Mexico Tijuana Mission sees an improvement in the quality of missionaries.
"We see new missionaries come from the Missionary Training Center looking enthusiastic, determined to elevate themselves to the magnitude of their calling. We see them eager, with a sincere desire to be His ambassadors."
President Alonso also credits members. "We see success working with members and leaders of the ward. We receive great support to find, teach, retain and invite. We observe that working together we find more families.
"One stake president felt the need to accompany missionaries to teach the lessons. Members of the ward fellowshipped the investigators through their baptism and confirmation and continued watching over them as young members. The father received the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods, his wife received a calling. A year later the entire family was sealed in the Hermosillo Mexico Temple."
President G. Ward Taylor of the Toronto Canada East Mission, serving in the mission of his youth when President Thomas S. Monson and President Frank H. Pitcher presided, said, "We have learned firsthand, as the Savior taught, that service is the best way to touch a hesitant heart. Because of English class, many wonderful souls are now numbered among His saints.
"During the past three years converts have come from 81 countries. Many of them were found as a result of missionaries teaching English classes. They were intrigued and remained after class to find out what motivated young men and women to leave home, dress up in suits and teach conversational English."
President Dirk Smibert of the New Zealand Auckland Mission remembers serving as a missionary 30 years ago and giving "wooden presentations," as President Hinckley described memorized approaches.
"Missionaries now realize that in order to teach by the Spirit, they need to qualify for the Spirit," he said. He told of a missionary who struggled to know of his worthiness to serve. One morning, after an earnest prayer the night before, the missionary observed how the beautiful sunrise of morning brought exquisite joy in contrast to the bitter pains of guilt.
The most successful missionaries are those who "treasure up the words of life," said President Lawrence E. Corbridge of the Chile Santiago North Mission.
"The combined effect of the changes of the past three years has been astounding, not only on those being taught, but also on those doing the teaching. The doctrines of salvation are being written in the hearts and souls of missionaries.
"These missionaries are amazing. In some instances I see timid elders get off the airplane, and then, over time, I see valor and courage grow.
"Whatever you parents, teachers, advisers, bishops and leaders are doing keep it up! Your sons and daughters are truly amazing. If the bar has been raised, the missionaries of this day are rising to meet it.
"I am astounded by how little they complain and that is not for want of things to complain about. Mission life is not easy, but that doesn't deter them.
"What a marvel and what a wonder, the work of the Lord."
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