The Book of Mormon: The Heart of Missionary Proselyting


Joseph B. Wirthlin
From an address to new mission presidents, Provo Missionary Training Center, 23 June 1999.
Conversion to this inspired book is conversion to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Fourteen years ago, President Ezra Taft Benson (1899–1994) gave a landmark address in general conference titled “Flooding the Earth with the Book of Mormon.” In this masterful discourse, he called the Church to repentance and gave us his prophetic vision of the role the Book of Mormon must play in our lives and in the Church. I wish to remind you of that vision. Also, I want to discuss how well we have followed his counsel these many years later. How are we doing in flooding the earth with the Book of Mormon? President Benson taught:

“The Book of Mormon is the instrument that God designed to ‘sweep the earth as with a flood, to gather out [His] elect.’ (Moses 7:62.) This sacred volume of scripture needs to become more central in our preaching, our teaching, and our missionary work. …

“The time is long overdue for a massive flooding of the earth with the Book of Mormon for the many reasons which the Lord has given. In this age of electronic media and the mass distribution of the printed word, God will hold us accountable if we do not now move the Book of Mormon in a monumental way. …

“… We hardly fathom the power of the Book of Mormon, nor the divine role it must play, nor the extent to which it must be moved. …

“I challenge our mission leaders to show their missionaries how to challenge their contacts to read the Book of Mormon and pray about it. Missionaries need to know how to use the Book of Mormon to arouse mankind’s interest in studying it, and they need to show how it answers the great questions of the soul. Missionaries need to read with those they teach various passages from the Book of Mormon on gospel subjects. …

“I challenge all of us to prayerfully consider steps that we can personally take to bring this new witness for Christ more fully into our own lives and into a world that so desperately needs it. …

“I have a vision of thousands of missionaries going into the mission field with [marvelous testimonies of this sacred book] so that they might feed the needs of a spiritually famished world.

“I have a vision of the whole Church getting nearer to God by abiding by the precepts of the Book of Mormon.

“Indeed, I have a vision of flooding the earth with the Book of Mormon” (Ensign, Nov. 1988, 4–6).

We need to have that same vision if we are to be successful in fulfilling the Lord’s wishes. We may be doing fine in terms of quantity, but how about in terms of quality? I believe there is much room for improvement.

The Power of the Book

In 1839 the Prophet Joseph Smith and several other Church leaders had the opportunity to address a congregation of 3,000 people in Philadelphia who were not members of the Church. Sidney Rigdon spoke first. Attempting to establish common ground, he taught the gospel by referring to the Bible and its prophecies. When Joseph arose to speak, he was displeased. He said that if others did not have the courage to testify of him, then he would testify of himself and of the Book of Mormon. Because of his speech, many were touched by the Spirit and were baptized into the Church (see Parley P. Pratt, Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt [1985], 260).

You may have many opportunities to teach and to bear witness of the gospel. May I suggest that you emulate the example of the Prophet and take every opportunity to bear witness of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon and of the divine mission of Joseph Smith.

When President David O. McKay’s father was serving a mission in Scotland, he encountered antagonism toward the Church. He decided to preach the doctrines of the gospel without mentioning the Restoration or the Book of Mormon. As the days passed, President McKay said, his father continued with this approach until his mind became so darkened and despondent that he felt he would have to leave his mission and go home.

As a last resort, he decided to go into a cave and pray for help. While he was praying, a voice came to him, “Testify that Joseph Smith is a Prophet of God.” He consequently changed his approach and began to testify of the Book of Mormon and of the Prophet Joseph Smith. As a result, President McKay said, his father discovered that many were touched by the spirit of his words and believed and were baptized (see David O. McKay, Cherished Experiences from the Writings of David O. McKay, comp. Clare Middlemiss [1976], 11).

I hope we can learn from this experience. If you want to reach people, if you want to change hearts, if you want to be successful in your missionary work, testify of the divinity of the Book of Mormon.

Before we go any further, we must understand why this inspired book of scripture is the heart of missionary proselyting. Conversion to it is conversion to Christ, because this book contains the words of Christ. The very title page of the Book of Mormon proclaims its purpose: “To the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ.”

Additionally, conversion to this inspired book is conversion to the gospel of Jesus Christ, because it contains the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Lord told Joseph Smith in the Doctrine and Covenants, “And again, the elders, priests and teachers of this church shall teach the principles of my gospel, which are in the Bible and the Book of Mormon, in the which is the fulness of the gospel” (D&C 42:12).

Finally, conversion to the Book of Mormon is conversion to the divine, prophetic calling of the Prophet Joseph Smith. It is the divine evidence of the truthfulness of Joseph Smith’s calling. Either this is all true, or it is not. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles explained it best when he wrote:

“To consider that everything of saving significance in the Church stands or falls on the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon and, by implication, the Prophet Joseph Smith’s account of how it came forth is as sobering as it is true. It is a ‘sudden death’ proposition. Either the Book of Mormon is what the Prophet Joseph said it is, or this Church and its founder are false, a deception from the first instance onward.

“Not everything in life is so black and white, but the authenticity of the Book of Mormon and its keystone role in our religion seem to be exactly that. Either Joseph Smith was the prophet he said he was, a prophet who, after seeing the Father and the Son, later beheld the angel Moroni, repeatedly heard counsel from Moroni’s lips, and eventually received at his hands a set of ancient gold plates that he then translated by the gift and power of God, or else he did not. And if he did not, he would not be entitled to the reputation of New England folk hero, or well-meaning young man or writer of remarkable fiction. No, nor would he be entitled to be considered a great teacher, a quintessential American religious leader, or the creator of great devotional literature. If he had lied about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, he would certainly be none of these.

“I am suggesting that one has to take something of a do-or-die stand regarding the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the divine origins of the Book of Mormon. Reason and righteousness require it. Joseph Smith must be accepted either as a prophet of God or else as a charlatan of the first order, but no one should tolerate any ludicrous, even laughable middle ground about the wonderful contours of a young boy’s imagination or his remarkable facility for turning a literary phrase. That is an unacceptable position to take—morally, literarily, historically, or theologically” (Christ and the New Covenant [1997], 345–46).

Missionaries Need to Be Prepared

To more effectively flood the earth with the Book of Mormon, we must begin by better preparing our missionaries. We need missionaries who come into the mission field with burning testimonies of it. Even more importantly, we need more missionaries—including member missionaries—who are truly converted and have had spiritual experiences with the Book of Mormon. A missionary will not be effective if he or she does not have a strong testimony of this sacred volume of scripture. Indeed, I believe a missionary’s effectiveness and success is directly related to his or her own conversion to, testimony of, and love of the Book of Mormon.

I have great faith in our young people who are called to serve missions. I believe they are better prepared with greater testimonies of this book. Let me share the example of one young man, Brian Yoho. When Brian was 14 years old, he decided it was time for him to read the Book of Mormon, since Joseph Smith was 14 when he received the First Vision. Brian read constantly, and he loved the book so much that he read it four times in one year.

One day Brian went to the Church distribution center with his mother. As they were leaving, Brian told his mother to go on ahead, as he wanted to purchase something alone. Normally that may be a red flag for a mother, but after all, what could he buy at the Church distribution center that would be harmful?

Brian’s mother respected his wish and waited in the car for him to make his secret purchase. A few minutes later, Brian got into the car with a large box. His mother asked what was in the box. “Oh, nothing,” he replied. When they got home, Brian then wrote on the box the address of his older brother, who was currently serving a mission, and asked his mother to ship it to his older brother. He still wouldn’t tell his mother what was in the box. So she wrote her son in the mission field, asking what was in the box that Brian had sent to him. He wrote back, explaining that Brian had sent him a box of copies of the Book of Mormon to hand out to people in his mission. Brian had been so touched by his reading from the Book of Mormon that he had a great desire to share it. He bought the box with his own hard-earned money and sent it to his missionary brother. Brian later served a full-time mission in Japan.

Is there any doubt that Brian caught President Benson’s prophetic vision of the Book of Mormon? We need more missionaries and members prepared, like Brian, with a great love and understanding of the Book of Mormon.

The proper use of this scripture in proselyting consists of much more than just placing a Book of Mormon in a home. The goal is not simply to see how many copies of it we can give away. The immediate goal when placing the Book of Mormon should be to have the investigator read it and receive the missionary discussions. The ultimate goal is for the book to lead the person to come unto Christ and be converted to the true Church.

The Story of Samuel Smith

This sacred book has been the center of our missionary work in this dispensation from the beginning, as we know from the example of the first missionary, Samuel H. Smith (1808–44), brother to the Prophet Joseph. We learn many things from his story about how to use it in missionary work.

His is a story of great faith and courage in the face of discouraging circumstances. He was not called as the first missionary by accident. After receiving a spiritual confirmation of the truthfulness of what his prophet-brother had been telling him, he became the third person baptized in this dispensation—following Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery.

He began his mission with a sure knowledge of the truthfulness of the sacred work being performed by Joseph Smith and also of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. As one of the Eight Witnesses, Samuel was privileged to be shown the plates by Joseph, and was able to hold the plates in his hands and examine the ancient writing thereon. He was also one of the six charter members of the Church when it was organized on 6 April 1830.

Shortly before he received his formal missionary call, Samuel sold a copy of the Book of Mormon to Phineas Young, a traveling preacher. In this initial encounter he held a book in his hand and offered it to Phineas.

“There is a book, sir, I wish you to read.”

Phineas hesitated. “Pray, sir, what book have you?”

“The Book of Mormon, or, as it is called by some, the Golden Bible.”

“Ah, sir, then it purports to be a revelation?”

“Yes. It is a revelation from God.”

The young man showed Phineas the last two pages of the book and had him read the testimony of the witnesses. The young man continued, “If you will read this book with a prayerful heart and ask God to give you a witness you will know of the truth of this work.”

His earnest demeanor and forthright manner impressed Phineas, who told the young man he would certainly read it. Phineas asked his name; he told him it was Samuel H. Smith.

“Ah, you are one of the witnesses.”

“Yes, I know the book to be a revelation from God, translated by the gift and power of the Holy Ghost, and that my brother, Joseph Smith, Jun., is a Prophet, Seer and Revelator” (quoted in S. Dilworth Young, Brigham Young—His Life (First Half), Brigham Young University Speeches of the Year [17 Mar. 1964], 3).

When Samuel left on his first mission, shortly following the organization of the Church, he was armed with a testimony of the truth and little else. But he needed little else. He had a testimony, and he had copies of the Book of Mormon—the missionary tool for conversion. He carried a knapsack with him that he filled with as many copies of this book as he could carry. He probably even carried one in his hand.

You have to remember that this had never been done before. He didn’t have a companion to show him how to use the Book of Mormon. There was no missionary training center for this young man.

So Samuel left Palmyra to travel throughout the countryside, seeking converts and interested individuals who would purchase a copy of the Book of Mormon. He walked 25 miles that first day, and upon reaching an inn, he asked the innkeeper if he would buy one of the books. When the innkeeper learned more of his mission, Samuel was forced to leave and spent that first night under an apple tree.

The next day Samuel met a Methodist preacher named John P. Greene. Mr. Greene was not personally interested in reading the book, but he said he would keep it to see if anyone else wanted to buy it. Samuel did not give up. He called again on the Greene family and found that Mr. Greene’s wife, Rhoda Young Greene—a sister of Phineas Young—had read the book. She later convinced her husband that he needed to read it as well. Samuel did not baptize one soul on that first mission, but those two copies of the Book of Mormon that were given to Phineas Young and John P. Greene eventually were the means of converting a whole neighborhood, including Brigham Young and his family and Heber C. Kimball and his family.

I love the story of Samuel Smith. He overcame great odds and used the Book of Mormon effectively. He bore testimony and invited the people to read from its pages. He then followed up with them as best he could under the circumstances to encourage them to read more. He never gave up. He had faith that God was in control and would use him as He needed. Lastly, he carried copies of the Book of Mormon with him. Like Samuel, we should see to it that we always have copies of this book ready to give away.

The Needs of Prospective Converts

Remember, prospective converts are like sprouting plants. They are all sprouting, but at different stages and degrees. Some are still seeds planted far beneath the ground, needing lots of sun, water, and time to grow. Such prospective converts may need years to sprout and blossom. Others are very close to the surface and only need a little sun, water, and patience to poke through the ground to the full rays of the sun. These prospective converts only need someone to love them. They only need to hear the truth as taught by the missionaries and gain a testimony of the Book of Mormon. They only need to make and keep the commitments that will lead them to conversion and baptism. Others, of course, are sprouting and blossoming when missionaries contact them, and they are fully prepared for the message of the Restoration. The Doctrine and Covenants states that such people “are only kept from the truth because they know not where to find it” (D&C 123:12).

By using the Book of Mormon effectively, we can accelerate that sprouting process. It contains the fulness of the gospel and the greatest witness of the Lord Jesus Christ and His divine mission. Teach of the Savior and His mission from its pages. We must teach of Christ more often. When we do, the Spirit will attend us more often, and true conversion will result.

This book of truth has many uses in missionary work: it helps people feel the Spirit, it helps answer concerns and questions, and it helps people make commitments. I know that as we use this sacred book effectively, our converts will be like those of Ammon’s converts who “were converted unto the Lord, [and] never did fall away” (Alma 23:6; emphasis added). No member of this Church is fully converted until he or she has a burning testimony of the Book of Mormon.

The world needs this great book of scripture more than ever. And people are hungering for it. This book is now translated and available in more than 100 languages. We will not rest until every man and woman can read this book in his or her tongue. Many people still do not have it in their own language. We are doing the best that we can in that regard.

Please do not take the Book of Mormon for granted. Pray for a vision of how you can use the Book of Mormon more effectively in your missionary work. I promise that as you do so, your mind will be enlightened with the direction that you should take. I pray that we may catch the vision of this great work, particularly of flooding the earth with this great book of scripture.

Let’s Talk about It

Most Ensign articles can be used for family home evening discussions. The following questions are for that purpose or for personal reflection:

  1. 1.

    Why should the Book of Mormon be central to our missionary efforts?

  2. 2.

    What can we do to strengthen our own testimonies of the Book of Mormon?

  3. 3.

    How can we more effectively use the Book of Mormon in our missionary work?

[illustration] Detail of Christ’s Image, by Heinrich Hofmann; inset, right: Photo by Welden C. Andersen; inset, left: Photo by Jed Clark; electronic composition by Patric Gerber

[illustration] Illustrated by Sam Lawlor

[photo] Photo by Jed Clark