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Going from Zero to One: Early Missionary Work in the LDS Church

The following is an address I gave in my congregation today. I will come back through and add my references shortly. Enjoy!

"And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good... and the evening and the morning were the first day." (Not bad for a Monday, eh?)

This famous verse of scripture does not simply evoke the wonder that we all feel when we stand on the precipice of unchartered territory. It also quietly stands as a witness to God's power, dominion, creativity, Priesthood, devotion, and faith in and for His plan and in and for His children. It typically takes a great deal of energy to take effectively nothing and create something out of it or to bring chaos to order, and the creation of the Universe was no exception. :)

God's first creative act in our temporal continuum which, according to scientists, expands to 48.5 billion light-years in any direction, defies comprehension.  It has nevertheless been pondered by the most religious and scientific minds for millennia. In the Catholic faith, we are taught that before the Universe was, there was only God and that the universe was created ex nihilo all Creation emanated from His divine substance. In our faith, Joseph Smith taught that matter can neither be created nor destroyed and that it was God's role to organize chaotic matter. Science adds quantity to the qualities already asserted by faith stating that some 14 billion years ago some yet-to-be-understood cosmic consequence took place, the universe literally burst from a single point in space and expanded faster than the speed of light to fashion stars, galaxies, planets, and even the laws of physics.

As I said, it takes a lot of energy to create something from nothing.

And while it may seem a bit grandiose to try and compare anything in our day to day lives with God's great creative act, I take strength from Elder Uchtdorf's assertion that we are creative beings because we are sons and daughters of the most creative Being ever. We truly are created in His image.

Indeed, to start anything from nothing and bring it to something, to go from zero to one, takes a great deal of energy, creativity, devotion, and faith. I'm reminded of this principle when I reflect on the early days of the restored church. Up until 1820, God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ had done a great deal of creating already, but they had a little bit more up their sleeves then perhaps the world thought at the time. At that time, they visited a young 14-year-old boy and beginning with that single act the gospel burst back onto the scene to begin the Dispensation of the Fullness of Times, nearly 14 billion years in the making expanding as fast as the legs of mortal missionaries could carry it to bring us new scripture, temples, redemption for our loved ones, and the renewed laws of God.

Joseph Smith himself declared:

 19 Now, what do we hear in the gospel which we have received? A voice of gladness! A voice of mercy ... a voice of truth out of the earth; glad tidings for the dead ... [and]... the living ... glad tidings of great joy. How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of those that bring glad tidings of good things, and that say unto Zion: Behold, thy God reigneth! 

 20 And again, what do we hear? Glad tidings from Cumorah! Moroni, an angel from heaven, declaring the fulfilment of the prophets—the book to be revealed. A voice of the Lord in the wilderness of Fayette ... declaring the three witnesses to bear record of the book ... The voice of Peter, James, and John in the wilderness between Harmony ... and Colesville ... on the Susquehanna river, declaring themselves as possessing the keys of the kingdom, and of the dispensation of the fulness of times!

Can you hear Joseph saying "You guys get it, right? How incredibly amazing all this is?"

 21 And again, the voice of God in the chamber of old Father Whitmer, in Fayette ... and at sundry times, and in divers places through all the travels and tribulations of this Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints! And the voice of Michael, the archangel; the voice of Gabriel, and of Raphael, and of divers angels, from Michael or Adam down to the present time, all declaring their dispensation, their rights, their keys, their honors, their majesty and glory, and the power of their priesthood; giving line upon line, precept upon precept; here a little, and there a little; giving us consolation by holding forth that which is to come, confirming our hope!

It took a lot of energy, creativity, devotion, and faith, though, to get to that point. It typically does, and on May 15, 1829, the world went from having no priesthood to a little priesthood, and on April 6, 1830, from having no true and living church to having one.

And at that point, it was on the shoulders of women and men empowered by God to take flight and preach His newly revealed word. Despite trials and tribulation, despite sickness and death, despite failure after failure, these brethren and sisters were charged with bringing to the world at large truths that were not present in the modern world and establishing a church that just moments before was non-existent.

Joseph Smith began with his younger brother by three years. After having baptized Oliver Cowdery, Joseph shared his testimony of the restored gospel to Samuel and ten days later he, too, was baptized on May 25, 1829, the third in this dispensation. Just one year later, the prophet Joseph called Samuel to go and be the first missionary called to preach the gospel.

In Samuel's hands, he carried copies of the Book of Mormon. Two copies were of particular effect. Samuel began his mission sleeping under a tree on the damp ground after walking 25 miles to arrive there. At his one place to possibly stay that night, he had been thrown out when he explained the Book of Mormon to the innkeeper.

However, Samuel did succeed in lending a copy to John Greene, a local minister, the following morning. Mr. Greene did not read it, but his wife Rhoda did. When Samuel came back to collect the book, he felt prompted to gift it to Mrs. Greene, Brigham Young's sister. Samuel's journal states that she was so happy that she "burst into tears". Samuel explained to Sister Greene: the most profitable manner of reading the book … which was, to ask God, when she read it, for a testimony of the truth of what she had read, and she would receive the Spirit of God, which would enable her to discern the things of God.” Later, Brother Greene read and both were baptized.

A second Book of Mormon was subsequently given to Phineas Young, Brigham Young's brother, who said: "I have got a book here called the Book of Mormon, and it is said to be a revelation, and I wish to read it and make myself acquainted with its errors, so I can expose them to the world." He read it twice in two weeks, and instead of finding errors, he became convinced of its truth and later was baptized.

Now, in a place where there was no gospel were the seeds that would eventually convert the successor to Joseph Smith, Brigham Young.

The landscape may have changed, but the principle stays the same. Let us fill the earth with the Book of Mormon. It has never been easier. With a click of a button, I can follow a prompting from the Holy Ghost and post a scripture verse to Twitter or Facebook. With a little bit more work, I can write my own testimony on my blog and add links to scriptures referenced there. Or, I can go old school and keep a Book of Mormon or two and a handful of pass-along cards in my backpack. What seeds will you plant?

Inez Knight, in 1898, was the first proselyting sister missionary for the church. Daughter of Jesse Knight, explained her first day, "At three houses they took my tract and spoke civilly to me, but at the fourth, a woman asked me who I was, and learning that I was a Latter-day Saint, she said, ‘You don’t know as much about them as I do, or you would not carry their trash around.’ I told her I had lived among them all my life and ought to know. She then asked me if I knew Mary ________. I answered no. ‘Well then you’re a liar; you either did not come from Utah or else you know her because Mormon Elders took her out six years ago.’ She followed me to each gate through the street, to inform them at each house who I was. Girl-like, I went home and cried."

Sister Knight's endured ridicule, rabble-rousing, and even mob action during her 23-month mission. She served faithfully despite the persecution, happy to be an Ambassador for Christ. Sometimes, Sister Knight felt alone in her endeavors even among her peers. At one particular missionary meeting, she was the only girl there. "I felt more conspicuous by the elders beginning their remarks; ‘My brethren and sister.’"


There can be a great deal of opposition and challenge going from zero to one, and now where there were no sister ambassadors, there was one.

The landscape may have changed, but the message is still the same. "Dare to be a Mormon, Dare to stand alone, Dare to have a purpose firm, Dare to make it known." Mormonism is widely accepted today as a legitimate religious tradition. Members are admired all over the world for their integrity and their optimism. We may sometimes feel defensive, though, where our beliefs are in stark contrast to the ever-shifting moral compass of society. We need not excuse ourselves or apologize; we need not become defensive. We must simply take a stand for truth and remember that it takes a great deal of faith, devotion, creativity, and energy to stand when no one else is. Being the first often gives permission for others to follow.

When Lorenzo Snow arrived in Italy in 1850, he had only been an apostle for one year and was charged with doing the first missionary work there and in Switzerland. Like Jeremiah prophesied would happen, the Lord sent "for many fishers..and they [fished] them; and [sent] for many hunters, and they [hunted] them from every mountain, and from every hill, and out of the holes of the rocks." Following a prompting, Elder Snow began preaching in an isolated valley called Piedmont at the base of the Alps in Northern Italy. There, he found the remnant of a large religious sect, the Waldenses, who had fled there in search of religious freedom. Elder Snow felt impressed by them, stating: "With a heart full of gratitude, I find an opening is presented in the valleys of Piedmont when all other parts of Italy are closed against our efforts. I believe that the Lord has there hidden up a people amid the Alpine mountains, and it is the voice of the Spirit that I shall commence something of importance." Elder Snow eventually brought over 100 people into the church from Piedmont.

As is always the case with missionary work, it was the result of great love and devotion on his part for the people of Piedmont. On one occasion, a three-year-old boy fell sick, and Elder Snow climbed Mt. Castelluzzo to pray on his behalf.  Elder Snow regarded the healing of the child as a circumstance "of vast importance. I know not of any sacrifice which I can possibly make, that I am not willing to offer, that the Lord might grant our requests." Upon returning from the mountain, he administered to the child, who, by the next day, was completely healed.

Elder Snow climbed mountains often to reach this little crop of people, and in a little corner of the world, where there was no priesthood, now there was some.

Our landscape may not be the Alps, but we are still amongst those called by God to be fishers and hunters of men, to go into every mountain and seek them out. It has never been easier to personalize the message of the gospel to reach the most remote corners of the earth. Think about it for a moment. When you follow the prompting to share your personal gospel story on the Internet, search engines like Google pick it up. The next time someone across the world searches for the truth that you have just shared, your post will come up as a result. Your story and testimony have the power to reach millions.

And finally, John Murdock is one of those who holds the special privilege of having his missionary callings recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants, a book which holds many of God's revelations given to Joseph Smith. Wouldn't that be cool to have written on paper your name and missionary calling as a result of revelation to the prophet? Oh, wait, that's exactly what happens!

Of course, in John Murdock's case, his wife had just died giving birth to twins, five weeks previous. And he had three other children aged six and younger to care for. In order to fulfill the Lord's call, Emma and Joseph themselves cared for the twins, and his three other children were put under the care of other members of the church. John left, and wouldn't see his children for nearly a year.

During that time, he preached with Hyrum Smith on his way to Missouri through Detroit. He reported preaching and baptizing much. However, when he arrived home, all was not well. While he was gone, a mob attacked Emma and Joseph, and in the midst of that attack, one of the twin babies died. Two of the three caretakers of the older children demanded payment. For two months, John worked to sort this all out, caring for his family, and then left again for a second mission, which would take him away from his children for another two years. Upon arrival home, his daughter Pheobe caught cholera and died. John left on his third mission to Ohio a few months later.

The world is a little different today then back then. Childhood death is much less common and the church is established enough that our missionaries can be young men and women or long-established couples. The principle is still the same, though: "A man filled with the love of God is not content with blessing his family alone, but ranges through the whole world, anxious to bless the whole human race." We have the most important message on the face of the earth. It will take devotion, faith, creativity, and energy to get that gospel into the lives of those who it has not yet touched.

Cutting new ground is hard, going from zero to one is hard, but it is the stuff of miracles.

Of course, Jesus Christ exemplifies all of this. Where there were no perfect children of God, now there was one, where there were no resurrected children of God, now there was one, where there was no true and living church, now there was one. Where there was no hope for the human race, now there was One. And because of Christ's energy, devotion, creativity and faith, He miraculously broke the chains of death and hell and now draws all men unto Him by the force of His unmatched love. Let's us be His agents to spread the message of the gospel to the whole world, to give glad tidings. Jesus Christ lives. We have living prophets. We have His priesthood restored upon the earth. We are undeserving of it all, and yet our Savior believes in us. May we believe Him. 

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