First, a hush. Then a murmur. And eventually a rush.
Those were the responses 10 years ago when during October 2012 general conference, President Thomas S. Monson announced a lowering of minimum-age requirements for young men and young women to serve as full-time missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In his brief, seven-minute address to open the 182nd Semiannual General Conference, at the Conference Center on Oct. 6, 2012, President Monson began by commenting on the music of the morning session, noting temple dedications and rededications of the past six months, and announcing two new temples — for Tucson, Arizona, and Arequipa, Peru.
A hush came over the capacity congregation in the Conference Center as President Monson changed to the topic of missionary service and recapped how the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles had allowed 18-year-old young men in certain countries to serve missions at that younger age, as they also faced military obligations and fulfilled educational opportunities.
Successful experiences with the 18-year-old missionaries had led Church leaders to desire the same option of earlier service for all young men, no matter their home countries, President Monson said.
“I am pleased to announce that effective immediately all worthy and able young men who have graduated from high school or its equivalent, regardless of where they live, will have the option of being recommended for missionary service beginning at the age of 18, instead of age 19,” he said.
The age of 18 was an option, not a mandate, with consideration to individual circumstances and the determinations by priesthood leaders.
An audible murmur from the congregation came when President Monson continued, speaking of similar consideration given to the age for sisters wanting to serve missions.
“Today I am pleased to announce that able, worthy young women who have the desire to serve may be recommended for missionary service beginning at age 19, instead of age 21,” he said.
And the rush? That came soon after, with the rush of missionary applications flooding Church headquarters.
Later that day
At a press conference in the Church Office Building lobby after the announcement, then-Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and chairman of the Church’s Missionary Executive Council, said the matter had been prayerfully studied for many months.
“This is an option that will allow more young men and women to enjoy the blessings of missionary service,” he said, noting that the Savior’s mandate to His followers was to go into all the world and preach the gospel.
“From the earliest days of the Church, that mandate has been followed. More than 1 million missionaries around the world have been called to serve.”
Elder Nelson said the Church has had much experience with 18-year-old missionaries. “Over the past decade permission has been given for young men from 48 countries to serve at age 18,” he explained.
Now, he added, the Church would have a single policy worldwide.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, also of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and a member of the Missionary Executive Council, noted that many parents, prospective missionaries and priesthood leaders had been surprised by the day’s announcement.
“You are not the only ones who have been surprised,” he said. “The list of those who had no idea this was coming is long — including virtually all of the general authorities, except the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve.”
He called on prospective missionaries to embrace, improve and take seriously their permission preparations and worthiness.
Elder Holland also announced that training periods at the Church’s then-15 missionary training centers would be reduced by a third, from three weeks to two or from nine weeks to six. The Provo MTC would look for additional housing, instruction and service facilities, and the Church would likely need to create new missions to accommodate the increase in new missionaries, he added.
Later that month — the rush
Less than three weeks after the conference, a Church spokesman detailed how the number of individuals beginning the mission application process had increased significantly.
“Typically, approximately 700 new applications are started each week,” said Scott Trotter on Oct. 23, 2012. “The last two weeks, that number has increased to approximately 4,000 per week.”
Slightly more than half of the applicants were women, he added.
Four months later
On Jan. 29, 2013, Elder Nelson and Elder Holland held a meeting at Benemérito de las Americas, the Church-sponsored school in Mexico City, Mexico. The two announced that Benemérito would close at the end of that school year and reopen as the new location of an expanded Mexico Missionary Training Center.
“We need an MTC immediately; we need it now,” said Elder Holland. “If we started tomorrow, it would take us three years and millions of dollars to construct, and what would we do in the meantime?”
Elder Nelson followed, pronouncing Jan. 29 as an important day in Church history. “This hallowed ground where we sit tonight will become more sacred with each passing year,” Elder Nelson continued. “Better, higher and holier purposes will be served in the future, more than they ever have been before.”
Six months later
In his welcoming address at the start of the April 2013 general conference, President Monson called the response of young elders and sisters “remarkable and inspiring” to his age-change announcement six months earlier.
“As of April 4 — two days ago — we have 65,634 full-time missionaries serving, with over 20,000 more who have received their calls but who have not yet entered a missionary training center, and over 6,000 more in the interview process with their bishops and stake presidents.
“It has been made necessary for us to create 58 new missions to accommodate the increased number of missionaries,” he said, adding an invitation for Latter-day Saints to contribute generously to the Church’s General Missionary Fund to assist the many new missionaries coming from modest means.
That next summer
In addition to the start of the Church’s 58 newly created missions and Benemérito’s move to house the Mexico MTC, the Provo Missionary Training Center experienced an expansion of its own.
Actually, it was an addition of residences, operations and meeting spaces to a self-contained “west campus” of two rented apartment complexes. And because combined attendance far exceeded available space at the MTC’s main campus, Tuesday night devotionals were moved to the BYU Marriott Center.
One year later
In a year’s time, the number of the Church’s full-time missionaries had grown from 58,000 to almost 80,000. By the end of 2013, the total would be 83,035.
Elder David F. Evans, then executive director of the Missionary Department, reported that sisters accounted for 24% of missionaries, up from 15% at the time of the age-change announcement.
Five years later
In 2017, the Church hit an all-time high of 421 missions worldwide, an increase of 174 from the 247 missions operating at the time of the age-change announcement.
And while the Provo MTC’s “west campus” had returned to the public as operating residential apartments following its two-year use with the surge of training missionaries, the MTC proper held an open house following a major expansion project.
Two new, six-story buildings at the Provo MTC primarily featured redesigned classroom space for training and large meeting rooms, with indoor and outdoor study areas to enhance the training experience. Capacity at the MTC increased to 3,700 elders, sisters and senior missionaries.
Using the Church’s end-of-year statistics, the 2021 total of full-time proselyting missionaries was 54,539, with an additional 36,639 service missionaries. Those numbers are up from the end of the previous, pandemic-period year of 2020 — 51,819 and 30,527, respectively.
And the Church’s total number of missions worldwide has moved back up to 411 for 2022, after contractions and realignment had resulted in a dip to 399 missions in 2019.
In the 10 years since the October 2012 age-change announcement, many other important changes and updates have followed — from how missionaries communicate with family back home to changes in what they wear, and from the expansion of some MTCs to the closure of others.
Oh, and don’t forget the impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021. Tens of thousands of missionaries were released early or reassigned to home-country missions, regular MTC operations were shuttered and missionary training moved to online, and missionaries learned new, effective modes of teaching and contacting through social media and digital technology. MTCs have since reopened, with training now a hybrid of online and on-site.
Ages 18 and 19 for elders and sisters seems so natural and commonplace, it takes mention of the age-change’s 10-year anniversary to prompt recollection of how monumental the announcement was in the fall of 2012.
The success of the surge of younger missionaries in the Church of Jesus Christ — their preparation, their transition and their service — has made what was once noteworthy to be the norm.