They went without purse or script, and they operated without missionary prep classes, discussion outlines, handbooks, mission leaders, visual aids or brochures. Yet the Church’s very first convert-missionaries, armed with strong testimonies, Bible expertise, perhaps a Book of Mormon or two, and firsthand contact with Joseph Smith, managed by the end of 1830 to bring the Church, as the Lord promised, “out of the wilderness.” (D&C 33:5.)
Missionary work began even before the Church was organized. The first recorded divine command to spread the gospel came in 1823 when Moroni instructed young Joseph to tell his father what he, Moroni, had taught the youth the night before. The two Josephs talked, and father believed son. During the next years Joseph shared many of his heavenly lessons with his family, and they trusted his truthfulness.
At that point no public ministry was possible because young Joseph had neither authority nor full understanding. Until the gold plates were obtained, translated, and published, and until a formal Church was established, to what could he convert people? The six years following Moroni’s first visit was a time for preparation, not preaching; a time for learning, not converting.
But while Joseph prepared, a rumor with her ten thousand tongues became the first missionary of the Restoration. Stories about Joseph and the gold plates were “noised abroad” quickly in the Palmyra area. If some local folk dug up the Hill Cumorah seeking other gold, most waited for further gossip about the mysterious Smiths. By divine design, more than by coincidence, many truth seekers passed through Palmyra to become religiously disturbed by the gold plates stories they heard. Proselyting would not wait, and like cracks in a dam about to burst, people interrupted Joseph’s translation labors to hear about his heavenly visitations.
Joseph was the first missionary, although not in the sense of traveling far and wide to preach. At first only his family and a few friends were trusted with these sacred truths.
The Joseph Knight family, for whom Joseph worked near Colesville, New York, were among the first few he told. Joseph Knight, Jr., recalled that in November 1826 Joseph “made known to my father and I, that he had seen a vision, that a personage had appeared to him and told him where there was a gold book of ancient date buried, and if he followed the directions of the Angel he could get it. We were told it in secret; I being the youngest son, my two elder brothers did not believe in such things; my father and I believed what he told us.” (Larry C. Porter, “A Study of the Origins of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the States of New York and Pennsylvania, 1816–1831,” Ph.D. thesis, Brigham Young University, 1971, p. 184.)
While Joseph struggled to translate, his father visited him at Harmony in February 1829. By revelation the Lord taught Joseph Smith, Sr., a theme repeated in numerous revelations: “The field is white already to harvest.” (D&C 4:4.) But the time for harvesting was not yet. Joseph’s older brother, Hyrum, three months later was similarly told about the great harvest but warned to “wait a little longer, until you shall have my word, my rock, my church, and my gospel.” (D&C 11:16.)
Like Joseph, his family conversed about his doings cautiously. Young Oliver Cowdery, temporarily boarding with the Smiths in Manchester, learned from them about Joseph’s mission. He wanted to doubt. He discussed the matter with his friend David Whitmer, then visiting Palmyra. Troubled, Oliver prayed about Joseph’s claims one night “and the Lord manifested to him that they were true.” (Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 1:35.) He soon sought out Joseph at Harmony, Pennsylvania, but stopped along the way at the Whitmers to tell David what he was doing. Following long discussions with Joseph, Oliver agreed to serve as his scribe while Joseph translated the Book of Mormon. Oliver later wrote letters to David—including recent lines from the translation—testifying of the work.
Both Joseph and Oliver anxiously awaited completion of the translation and wondered about the Lord’s plan for them. When John the Baptist bestowed upon them the authority to baptize, on May 15, 1829 (D&C 13), a major new missionary step was taken, for now the entire world needed to be given the chance to receive proper baptism. Such a crusade still had to wait for the translating to be done, but henceforth visitors, such as Joseph’s brother Samuel a few days later, not only received teachings but also baptism.
The Whitmers, convinced by Oliver’s letters, invited Joseph and Oliver to their home at Fayette where free board and room and transcribing help were provided, and interested investigators came to hear the gospel. At the Whitmers the translation work was finished by August 1829. By that time Hyrum Smith and three Whitmer brothers, David, John, and Peter, had requested and received baptism. Christian Whitmer copied some Book of Mormon teachings from Joseph’s manuscript, and then his three baptized brothers used the copy to preach to nearby neighbors and relatives from August 1829 to April 1830. Perhaps the Whitmers thereby caused Joseph more interruptions, because during his Fayette stay he received “numerous inquirers.” He and Oliver and the Whitmers “continued to bear testimony and give information as far as we had opportunity.” (S. George Ellsworth, “A History of Mormon Missions in the United States and Canada, 1830–1869,” Ph.D. thesis, University of California at Berkeley, 1941, pp. 63–64; History of the Church, 1:51.)
Once the Book of Mormon printing project started, public interest in Joseph Smith increased. “There begins to be a great call for our books in this country,” wrote Joseph from Harmony to Oliver, who was in Palmyra supervising the printing. “The minds of the people are very much excited when they find that there is a copyright obtained and there is really [a] book about to be printed.” The E. B. Grandin print shop in Palmyra became a stopping place for the “curious and the serious.” Local residents enjoyed informing visitors about this unusual excitement in their tiny town. And like a magnet, the printing project attracted earnest seekers of truth. (Richard Lloyd Anderson, “Gold Plates and Printer’s Ink,” Ensign, Sept. 1976, p. 75.)
One was Thomas B. Marsh of Boston, who visited nearby Lyonstown, New York. The lady of the house where he lodged asked if he knew about the “gold book.” This being news to him, he asked so many questions she sent him to Palmyra. At Grandin’s shop, Martin Harris talked with him, arranged for him to take proof sheets of the first sixteen pages of the Book of Mormon, and then escorted Thomas to the Smith home at Manchester. There Oliver Cowdery spent part of two days telling him about Joseph’s work. Thomas returned to Massachusetts “highly pleased with the information I had obtained concerning the new found book.” He displayed the sixteen pages, shared his impressions, and converted his family. Later, when he learned that the Church was organized, he moved his family to Palmyra, and in September 1830 he was baptized and immediately called on a mission. (D&C 31.) Within five years Thomas Marsh became one of the first twelve apostles called in this dispensation. (“History of Thos. Baldwin Marsh,” Deseret News, 24 Mar. 1858.)
A few months after Thomas’s 1829 visit, Solomon Chamberlain felt called by the Spirit to debark from his westbound canal boat and go to Palmyra. The family he lodged with talked of the “gold Bible,” and the news shook him: “There was a power like electricity went from the top of my head to the end of my toes.” He immediately cut across the fields for half a mile to reach the Smith home.
There he shared with the Smiths his own religious experiences. At age nineteen he had a vision of hell and another of three heavens. He fervently sought salvation, and prayer brought release. Another vision showed him “there was no people on the earth that was right,” but that God shortly would raise up a church after the apostolic order. “If you are a visionary house,” he pleaded, “I wish you would make known some of your discoveries for I think I can bear them.” They did and he did. He felt instant testimony. He too obtained page proofs from Grandin’s shop—sixty-four pages—which he took with him as he resumed his journey to Canada.
He then became an unbaptized missionary of Mormonism, preaching the Book of Mormon to many listeners on his seven-hundred to eight-hundred mile trip. He found no one who had heard of the “gold Bible,” so he exhorted all to receive it when it was published.
He sold copies of the book as soon as it came off the press. He preached to groups of Methodists, including gatherings of ministers, who “utterly rejected me and the Book of Mormon.” One leader condemned him by saying: “If it was of God, do you think he would send such a little upstart as you are round with it?” One group he addressed included the brothers Brigham and Phineas Young. At a Baptist meeting a large group “received the work, but there was no one to baptize them.” As soon as the Church was organized, Solomon went to Fayette, where Joseph baptized him. He then established a branch of the Church in Lyons. (“A Short Sketch of the Life of Solomon Chamberlain,” photocopy of typescript, Church Historical Department.)
In March 1830 the Book of Mormon was printed, and on April 6 the Church was formally organized. Both events produced a new, stepped-up phase in missionary work. Baptisms increased rapidly. On April 6 Joseph could not contain his extreme joy at seeing his own father accept baptism, along with many others. Succeeding Sundays saw more baptisms take place, and at least one local minister, Reverend Diedrich Willers of the Fayette German Reformed Church, became alarmed. On June 18—the Church was barely two months old—he penned a warning letter to minister colleagues in Pennsylvania. In it he summarized and criticized the Book of Mormon, which seemed to him to be the key to Mormon conversions. The book’s effects, he noted, “already extend upon members of various Christian persuasions.” He personally knew the converts named Whitmer because they once belonged to his congregation. “For the past several Sundays many people of both sexes have been immersed by them, and so many during the week that their numbers in the region hereabouts may amount to at least 100 persons.” (D. Michael Quinn, trans. and ed., “The First Months of Mormonism: A Contemporary View by Rev. Diedrich Willers,” New York History 54, 1973, p. 331.) His estimate, which may be fairly accurate, indicates that vigorous missionary work had begun at last. No longer would proselyting depend upon visitors coming to inquire, although that trend continued, but now ordained priesthood holders were sent forth specifically to preach and baptize.
If Samuel H. Smith was told in April 1830 that he was “not as yet called to preach before the world” (D&C 23:4), that situation soon changed. Ordained an elder on June 9, he took summer trips into neighboring counties, alone or with his parents, to sell the Book of Mormon. His efforts seemed fruitless until he later learned that one copy he left with a Methodist minister had helped to convert Reverend John P. Greene and his wife, her brothers Phineas and Brigham Young, Fanny Young Murray, and the latter’s daughter—who was married to Heber C. Kimball.
Phineas Young read the book twice, felt a conviction that it was true, preached it to his congregation, and then departed on a scheduled preaching trip among Canadian Methodists, at the invitation of his brother Joseph. On the way he and Joseph Young stopped at Lyons to see their old friend, Solomon Chamberlain. Now a Mormon convert, Solomon preached for two hours to the Youngs, and by the time Phineas reached Canada he felt he no longer could preach Methodism. So he talked instead of the Book of Mormon—another example of proselyting by an unbaptized convert. (Ivan J. Barrett, Joseph Smith and the Restoration, Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1973, pp. 144–45.) He circulated his copy of the book among family members, including his brother Brigham. Subsequent missionary contacts brought the Youngs, Kimballs, and Greenes into the Church.
Joseph Smith, Sr., a newly ordained priest, likewise used that summer to thrust his sickle into ripe fields—in this case by taking his fourteen-year-old son Don Carlos and traveling to St. Lawrence County to preach to his father’s family. Asael Smith rejoiced over his son’s message, and Asael’s son John—brother of Joseph, Sr.—converted, as did John’s son George A. Smith, who later, as one of the Twelve, recalled the missionaries’ visit:
“I had never seen them before, and I felt astonished at their sayings. Uncle Joseph and Don Carlos were anxious to get to Stockholm to see grandfather. Accordingly they started, and my father went to carry them. I and my mother spent the whole of Saturday, all day and Sunday night in reading the Book of Mormon.” (Journal of Discourses, 5:103.)
The father and son missionary team, while at Stockholm, also converted an elderly Baptist exhorter, Solomon Humphrey, who then journeyed to meet Joseph and was baptized.
This was a day of religious hunger, of Bible experts, of itinerant preachers. And when these types linked up with Mormonism, they became good missionaries. It was not unusual then “for a man to hear Mormonism preached one day, be baptized the next, be ordained an elder on the following day, and the day after that be out preaching Mormonism.” (Ellsworth, “A History of Mormon Missions,” p. 38.) Parley P. Pratt’s conversion was such a case.
Parley P. Pratt, a New Yorker lately of Ohio and a recent convert to Sidney Rigdon’s brand of Campbellism, knew nothing of the “gold Bible.” But as he journeyed east by canal, the Spirit prompted him to send his wife on ahead so he could stop to preach near Palmyra. A Baptist deacon told him about the Book of Mormon and let him read it. The book struck home so forcefully that he sought out the Smiths. Joseph was absent, but Hyrum taught Parley his first lessons about Mormonism. Parley then journeyed to Fayette and met Joseph. On 1 September 1830, Oliver Cowdery baptized, confirmed, and ordained Parley an elder, and Parley then preached to many local gatherings and baptized several. He rejoined his wife and relatives and converted his nineteen-year-old brother, Orson. (Parley P. Pratt, Autobiography of Parley Parker Pratt, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1964, pp. 36–46.)
Along with specific mission calls in late 1830 to men like Thomas Marsh, Ezra Thayer, Northrop Sweet, and Orson Pratt, Joseph by revelation called Oliver Cowdery to head up a special mission to the Lamanites. (D&C 31, D&C 33, D&C 34.) From 1823 to 1830 Joseph’s foremost mission had been to prepare himself and to make the Book of Mormon available to the world. In July 1828 the Lord instructed him that the primary reason the plates had been preserved was so “the Lamanites might come to the knowledge of their fathers, and that they might know the promises of the Lord, and that they may believe the gospel and rely upon the merits of Jesus Christ.” (D&C 3:20.) Therefore, Oliver (D&C 28), Peter Whitmer, Jr. (D&C 30), and then Parley P. Pratt and Ziba Peterson (D&C 32) were called in October 1830 to go to Missouri as special missionaries to the Lamanite nations.
Their knapsacks and satchels loaded with copies of the Book of Mormon, the quartet headed west. After a stop at the Cattaragus Indian reservation in western New York, they made a second proselyting stop at the door of Parley’s former pastor, Reverend Sidney Rigdon, at Mentor, Ohio. Sidney listened, let them preach to his congregation, and two weeks later became a Latter-day Saint. His conversion was considered the most effective advertising received by the Church since its inception; and it triggered a chain reaction which resulted in 130 baptisms before the missionaries departed, and hundreds of others later as the new Ohio converts themselves turned into missionaries. (Porter, “A Study of the Origins of the Church,” p. 281–84; Journal History, Oct. 1830.) On the Missouri frontier, however, government agents refused to allow Indian tribes to listen to the missionaries.
While the Lamanite missionaries worked in the west, new converts Sidney Rigdon and Edward Partridge traveled east in December, met Joseph Smith, and added their labors to the New York missionary work. Sidney, probably the most culturally eloquent speaker the young Church had, drew crowds in many important towns before he and Joseph journeyed to Kirtland in January.
Because of the work of these first missionaries, and others whom records do not identify, the six-month-old Church by December 1830 had about 190 members in New York and hundreds more in the Kirtland area. The white field was being harvested, and the Church stepped unhesitatingly into the role it has never since relinquished, that of a missionary Church committed to preaching the gospel to every nation, tongue, and people. While missionary methods have changed many times during the past 150 years, the basic reason for proselyting remains unchanged since the Lord first issued it in June 1829 for the benefit of the very first converts:
“Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God;
“For, behold the Lord your Redeemer suffered death in the flesh; wherefore he suffered the pain of all men, that all men might repent and come unto him.
“And he hath risen again from the dead, that he might bring all men unto him, on conditions of repentance.
“And how great is his joy in the soul that repenteth!
“Wherefore, you are called to cry repentance unto this people.
“And if it so be that you should labor all your days in crying repentance unto this people, and bring, save it be one soul unto me, how great shall be your joy with him in the kingdom of my Father!
“And now, if your joy will be great with one soul that you have brought unto me in the kingdom of my Father, how great will be your joy if you should bring many souls unto me!” (D&C 18:10–16.)