Some missionaries mistakenly judge the success of their missions based on the number of baptisms.
Our twentieth century prophets who served in Britain had few, if any, convert baptisms. David O. McKay, Joseph Fielding Smith, and Gordon B. Hinckley were all discouraged and frustrated with their lack of converts.
Joseph Fielding Smith remarked that anyone in Britain who could have been baptized was already baptized by Wilford Woodruff or Brigham Young.
Who can say that these spiritual giants were failures?
The true measure of success is to do the Lord’s work the Lord’s way. That means working hard, being obedient, and above all else, having and teaching by the Spirit. We don’t convert people, the Spirit does.
Apostle Paul, the greatest missionary of all time, observed: “I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. So then neither is he that planted any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase.” (1 Cor. 3: 5-6)
Therefore, our duty and obligation as members and missionaries is to constantly plant, and constantly water, and let God give the increase. After all, He is Lord of the harvest.
Here are two classic stories of missionaries who thought their missions were a failure because baptized only one person.
The Missionary with Only One Convert Baptism, as told by Gordon B. Hinckley
I was interested in a story which Brother Charles Callis told to me just before he died. He came in the office one day and sat down across the desk and told this story.
He said, “When I was President of the Southern States Mission, I had every missionary come into the office before he was released. One day a boy came in and I said, “What have you accomplished?” He said, “Nothing, and I’m going home.”
“What do you mean you have accomplished nothing?” “Well,” he said, “I baptized one man back in the backwoods of Tennessee who didn’t know enough or have enough to wear shoes and that’s all I’ve done. I’ve wasted my time and my father’s money, and I’m going home.”
Brother Callis said, “I went up into that area six months later to check on that convert because of the sense of failure with which that boy went home fascinated me. And, I went up and checked on that man and I found that he had put on shoes and, moreover, he had put on a white shirt and a tie, and he had been ordained a deacon and he was secretary in the Sunday School in the little branch in which he lived.”
Two years later, he was ordained an Elder and he was superintendent of the Sunday School. He had moved off the tenant farm on which he lived and on which his father before him had lived. He bought a little piece of ground of his own. Two years later, he was the branch president. And, a couple of years later, he had accumulated enough that he sold his farm and moved to Idaho and bought a farm there, and reared his family. His sons and daughters went on missions and their sons and daughters.
Brother Callis said, “I’ve just completed a survey which indicates, according to the best information I can find, that over 1,100 people have come into the Church as a result of the conversion of one man in the back hills of Tennessee who didn’t wear shoes.” (Gordon B. Hinckley, BYU Address, Jan. 28, 1959)
“One Dirty Little Irish Kid,” as told by Harold B. Lee
“Those of us who have served missions have seen the miracle in the lives of some we have taught as they have come to realize that they are sons and daughters of God.
Many years ago, an elder who served a mission in the British Isles said at the end of his labors, ‘I think my mission has been a failure. I have labored all my days as a missionary here and I have only baptized one dirty little Irish kid. That is all I baptized.’
“Decades later, after his return to his home in Montana, he had a visitor come to his home who asked, ‘Are you the elder who served a mission in the British Isles in 1873?'”
“Then the man went on, ‘And do you remember having said that you thought your mission was a failure because you had only baptized one dirty little Irish kid?’
“He said, ‘Yes.’
“The visitor put out his hand and said, ‘I would like to shake hands with you. My name is Charles A. Callis, of the Council of the Twelve of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I am that dirty little Irish kid that you baptized on your mission’ (see The Teachings of Harold B. Lee, ed. Clyde J. Williams , 602–3).
Elder Callis had a large family. He served as a mission president for 25 years. He served as an apostle for 13 years. He impacted the lives of literally thousands.
(See: James E. Faust,’Them That Honor Me I Will Honor,” Ensign, May 2001))
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4 thoughts on “"Failed" LDS Missionaries”
I have just one sliver of disagreement with the Church: the intense pressure on our missionaries to produce numbers of convert baptisms. Or, it used to be that way in 1978. In my experience it produced acrid ills: It caused stress—which distorted our hopes and motives (that is, seeing people as ‘prospects’ for stats instead of children of God needing love and blessings. It engendered unrighteous dominion in 20 year old mission leaders who would feel the pressure and because of it scold, ridicule, or lambast missionaries—even though their stats proved they were working hard. It killed joy in the work, caused discouragement, depression, loathing. You can’t fake happiness on a doorstep. Not really.
I love this edition of the Edition; it unfolds a beautiful, liberating perspective. With it, missionaries’ spirits could soar and deploy joy in every personal contact.
As it should be.
Great comment. I found the pressure for numbers did not come from the Mission President or Brethren, but from the young District and Zone Leaders. The strength of the church does not lie in the numbers, but in the testimony of its members.
On Sun, Aug 16, 2020 at 2:18 AM The London Edition wrote:
In reflecting, that rings beautifully true.
In my late-70’s mission, we did not receive pressure to produce baptism numbers from the mission presidency nor the Brethren. The damaging hype came from the young District Leaders, Zone Leaders, and Assistants. I think being called didn’t erase their youthful foolishness; it certainly didn’t mine. We were all post-adolescents doing our very best but acting dumb a lot. Yet I wonder if 20 year old mission leaders could be given training to imbue a perspective that did not push baptism goals, And that these are the things matter most—
1). You must be morally clean
2). Really love who’s right in front of you
3). Really listen to who’s right in front of you
I think that is everything in missionary work. Everything else is a far-distant second.
Very cool story of how a tiny stone thrown in a pond can create lots of ripples. My paternal grandfather served in the Southern States Mission in the 20’s under Charles Callis and I believe my Uncle Callas is named after him.