Freedom of speech: Missionaries’ voices echo gospel truths across land

Two hundred years ago the Bill of Rights was added to the U.S. Constitution to protect from government intrusion some of the "certain unalienable rights" that were referred to in the Declaration of Independence. The American colonists had fought for these rights during the Revolutionary War more than a decade before.

The first of the 10 articles in the Bill of Rights guarantees such basic rights as the free exercise of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right of the people to assemble, and the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances – all essential to the restoration and spread of the gospel only a few decades later."And for this purpose," the Lord declared in a revelation in 1833, "have I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose." (D&C 101:80.)

The Prophet Joseph Smith on numerous occasions expressed his love for the Constitution and an appreciation for the liberties it protected: "Hence we say, that the Constitution of the United States is a glorious standard; it is founded in the wisdom of God. It is a heavenly banner; it is to all those who are privileged with the sweets of liberty, like the cooling shades and refreshing waters of a great rock in a thirsty and weary land. It is like a great tree under whose branches men from every clime can be shielded from the burning rays of the sun." (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 147.)

Knowing the importance of freedom of speech and its twin, freedom of the press, to the spread of the gospel, the Prophet on another occasion declared, "I am the greatest advocate of the Constitution of the United States there is on the earth." (Teachings, p. 326.)

Concerning freedom of speech, the first amendment simply states: "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech." The citizens of this new country were to be free to open their mouths, to speak their minds, to express their views without fear of governmental control or intimidation or punishment.

The first formal missionary activity began in the spring of 1830. Samuel H. Smith, the Prophet Joseph's younger brother, filled his knapsack with copies of the Book of Mormon and set off through the neighboring towns in upstate New York to acquaint people with the newly published book of scripture.

In September 1830, just five months after the organization of the Church and only 39 years after the adoption of the Bill of Rights, the Lord commanded Oliver Cowdery and others to take a missionary journey among the Lamanites.

In August 1831, less than a year later, the Lord commented on the missionary efforts of several of the elders who were returning from Missouri: "But with some I am not well pleased, for they will not open their mouths, but they hide the talent which I have given them, because of the fear of man" (D&C 60:2). By then, apparently, the instruction to open their mouths had been applied to missionaries generally.

From the very beginning of this dispensation, missionaries have gone forth to declare the glad tidings of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. The constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech afforded these early missionaries – as well as missionaries today – the privilege to freely teach the principles of the gospel, to invite people to come unto Christ, to call them to repentance, to administer the ordinances of baptism and confirmation, and to bear testimony to the truthfulness of the latter-day work they represented.

Those who accept the missionaries' message are prepared – as they exercise faith and repent of their sins – to receive the ordinances of baptism and the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.

Though missionaries in the United States during the past 160 years have often been hindered in their efforts by the prejudice and fears and animosity of certain individuals and groups, they have typically been spared (because of constitutional guarantees of such freedoms as speech and worship) the official resistance and restrictions that missionaries have encountered at various times in other lands. In those lands proselyting activities at times have been severely curtailed or even prohibited.

Initially the United States served as the gathering place for the saints – first in Kirtland, then successively in Missouri, Illinois and Utah and other parts of the western United States. America became the base of operations from which the early saints took the gospel to other lands. In this century the focus has changed and the gathering is occurring in stakes of Zion around the globe.

Even though we live in a day when we are seeing the gospel message being taken literally to the ends of the earth, the United States remains an important part of the harvest of souls that the Lord is gathering in from the nations of the earth. Since the first missionary journey of Samuel H. Smith in the spring of 1830, missionaries have continued to preach and teach in every part of the country. Of the 267 full-time missions throughout the world today, 80 of them are headquartered in the United States.

The invitation to Church members to open their mouths gained new significance when President David O. McKay in 1959 declared, "Every member a missionary!" (Conference Report, April 1959, p. 122.) This inspired slogan – repeated and emphasized by later missionary prophets, including Spencer W. Kimball and Ezra Taft Benson – merely focused on the Lord's own commandment in 1832: "It becometh every man who hath been warned to warn his neighbor." (D&C 88:81.) Every person who enters the waters of baptism, every member of the Church, not only has the freedom to open his mouth but also has accepted a covenant responsibility "to stand as witnesses of God at all time and in all things, and in all places." (Mos. 18:9.)

The ultimate destiny of missionary work was envisioned by the Prophet Joseph Smith in a prophecy he made in 1842: "Our missionaries are going forth to different nations. . . . The Standard of Truth has been erected; no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing; persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame, but the truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent, till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear, till the purposes of God shall be accomplished, and the Great Jehovah shall say the work is done." (History of the Church 4:540.)