In the mid-1980s, Bolivia was one of the highest-baptizing missions in the world, and I would assume that it probably still is. We averaged somewhere around 350 baptisms a month. Most Bolivians are “Lamanites,” meaning they are Native Americans, who we all know descended from Father Lehi. When I worked as Mission Historian, I saw a letter dated 1969 from then-President of the Quorum of the Twelve Joseph Fielding Smith, who congratulated the missionaries on their success and noted that it should not be surprising, given that most of the people were Lamanites and Bolivia was one of the “central” locations of the Book of Mormon (I’m sure the FARMS folks would take issue with that).
But that was our attitude. The Bolivians were just waiting to accept the gospel; in the MTC, the “culture class” teacher told us that people would literally approach missionaries in the street and ask for baptism. So it was with great anticipation of baptizing multitudes of people that I went to Bolivia.
In my first area, outside of La Paz, people indeed seemed receptive. We knocked a lot of doors, and a surprising number of people let us in to give the first discussion. I quickly learned that they mostly let us in out of curiosity or politeness; we almost never got back to teach a second discussion. Often they would schedule a second discussion when they knew no one would be home. We were told repeatedly to issue the “baptismal challenge” by the third discussion, and we usually did.
But there was constant pressure to “bap” (mission slang for baptizing). Our mission president, a tired man from Argentina, came up with an inspired program of setting and reporting goals. He called it “Buscando las Ovejas” (seeking the sheep). Each week at zone meeting the zone leaders would draw a huge table on the chalkboard (the mission president called it “la pizarra magica” or magic chalkboard); on the chart would be goals (metas) and accomplishments (logros). We were supposed to set goals for the number of door approaches (called “mini-charlas”), discussions (charlas), and baptisms for the next week. At the next meeting, we would write down what we had achieved and then the next week’s goals. If your goals weren’t sufficiently aggressive, the zone leaders would tell you so, and you would be encouraged in front of the other missionaries to have more faith and work harder.
Once a month we received a mission newsletter (“El Chasqui,” which is Quechua for “messenger”), which contained the monthly results in baptisms for each companionship. The top baptizing companionship was displayed in a large box (called the “Rocky Box” after the boxer) in large, bold print. Below that was the list of baptisms by companionship in descending order. Those who had no baptisms had their own separate “zero” page, and nobody wanted to be on the zero page.
Reactions to the numbers game varied. One of my companions would ask me on the way to zone meeting, “How many door approaches sound good? How about discussions?” and then he’d make up names for the investigator pool. Other missionaries went the other way. One missionary in our zone reported 27 baptisms in a single month (he made the “Rocky Box,” of course). I asked him about it, and he told me that the chapel in his area had a nice volleyball court, and a large group of preteen kids would play there every day. He asked them if they were church members, and they said they weren’t. “You can’t play here unless you’re members of our church,” he said. They asked how you became members, and the rest followed naturally.
The pressure to baptize also resulted in missionaries baptizing people who had no clue what they were getting into. I remember as a district leader interviewing people who couldn’t tell me who Joseph Smith was. I told the missionaries these people weren’t ready for baptism, but they went to the branch president, who cleared the people for baptism.
Once my companion and I baptized a couple of older women who pretty much had no idea what we were talking about. I told him I wasn’t sure it was a good idea to baptize people who didn’t understand the gospel, but he said, “Well, they want to get baptized, so it’s not up to us to deny them.” Sounded OK to me, so they got baptized, but I never did feel quite right about it. At church the day after the baptism, they came up to us, giggling. “You tell them,” the one said. “No, you tell them,” said the other. Finally they told us that they had enjoyed the baptism so much they wanted to do it again. Until that day, they had never been completely immersed in water.
Missionaries baptized a lot of children in our mission. It was quite common for the missionaries to contact a family, but only the children would be baptized. The parents would say that they thought the church sounded like a good thing for their kids, but the parents would remain Catholic. Most of these kids faded away rather quickly. I would say that it was most common for missionaries to baptize a person after he or she had been to church a single time, and then after the baptism, we would never see him or her again.
Another common issue was that a lot of Bolivians live in “common law” marriages because a wedding costs money, and most Bolivians did not have money. Common-law marriage was a widespread and acceptable practice, but people had to be legally married to be baptized. So, missionaries often took their investigators to the Registro Civil to get married on their way to the church to get baptized. I probably paid for 5 or 6 marriages while I was there.
About six months into my mission, a new mission president came to Bolivia. A religion professor from Ricks College, he told us that he was going to focus on the spiritual, on converting his missionaries. If we learned to get the spirit, he said, we would naturally have success. For a while that’s what we did. We still did the magic chalkboard, but interviews with the president were always about how we were doing personally and spiritually. That was a welcome change.
But then something happened. At April conference, all the mission presidents were sent to Salt Lake for special training. A new set of non-memorized discussions was introduced, and the mission presidents spent the week being instructed in the ways of successful missionary work. Shortly thereafter, our mission president was setting numerical goals for baptisms in the mission. He wanted 600 baptisms in July and 1,000 in December (which would be my last month).
We worked our butts off in July. We pushed for people to get baptized quickly, so they would get baptized before July 31, and some people held their June baptisms over so they would be in July. Even though I was dealing with a depressed companion and was quite ill myself, we managed to have 3 baptisms that month. Not surprisingly, the mission made its goal that month.
December was another story. By this time, I was working in El Beni, the vast Amazonian jungle in northern Bolivia. We had no phone and sporadic mail service, so we didn’t get a lot of pressure. But when I got to Cochabamba to go home, I heard that we had just barely missed the goal. If I remember it right, they baptized somewhere around 970 people that month. I wonder how many of those actually ended up being active members. If average numbers held, you could count on somewhere around 100, but I’m guessing that things were so rushed that you’d be lucky to have half that number still in the church.
I should probably add that, all told, I baptized somewhere around 65 people on my mission.