A friend of mine recently read my book and wrote to me wondering why I hadn’t spent much time writing about the message we missionaries brought and why that message resonated with the people we baptized. I didn’t have a good answer, but after I thought about it, I realized that the message was not really an important part of being a Mormon missionary. Missions were about obedience to our leaders and increasing the number of church members. I wrote a while back about the pressure among Mormon missionaries to produce numbers of baptisms, which in our mission led to some shocking abuses.
I know enough about other missions to understand that the emphasis on numbers has disastrous effects on church members, wards, and stakes. For example, the LDS church grew at a phenomenal rate in Chile until 2002–at least on paper. That year, in an unusual move, the church sent apostle Jeffrey Holland to Chile to train leaders, but mostly to reorganize the church there. Before Holland arrived, there were 951 congregations (wards and branches) and 116 stakes in Chile; by 2005, there were 607 congregations and 74 stakes, meaning that 344 congregations and 42 stakes had been closed. Years of focusing on baptisms at all costs led to abysmal retention and activity rates, though the church kept creating these phantom congregations and stakes based on the number of people in the church’s records. The discrepancy between the membership numbers the church reports and those who self-identified as Latter-day Saints in the 2002 Chilean census is telling: That year, the LDS church reported 527,972 members in Chile. In the census, only 103,735 people self-identified as LDS. (For details, see cumorah.com) I should also note that apostle Dallin Oaks was sent on a similar mission to the Philippines at the same time, resulting in the closing of six stakes.
Most of us are familiar with missionary techniques for increasing numbers: quick teaching and baptism of children and teens and going after those “in transition,” such as people who have experienced a death in the family, loss of job, or other instability. In his excellent article, “I-Thou vs. I-It Conversions: The Mormon “Baseball Baptism” Era,” Michael Quinn explains how pressure for numbers drove these tactics, reaching their nadir in the era of the “Baseball Baptisms” in Britain in the 1960s.
At least I thought that was the nadir until I read about “The Groberg Era” in the Tokyo South Mission in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which is described in appalling detail here. In 1978 the new mission president, Delbert H. Groberg (brother of general authority and author John Groberg) arrived in Japan and met with Yoshihiko Kikuchi, who had recently been called as the first Japanese general authority. Groberg wrote in his journal:
Elder Kikuchi came out to our home and we talked from 3:30pm until 7:00pm. He really has high expectations of me. I had thought that 10 times as many baptisms as they are getting now would be a good goal to shoot for (about 10,000). Before telling him, I asked him what he felt I should do. He mapped out the progress as he expected and it turned out to be 25 times as much as what is currently happening minimum! (And he stressed minimum!) That seems like a lot, but I believe we can make it.
To achieve these goals, Kikuchi and Groberg implemented what they called the “Investigator Extraction” method. A former missionary who served at that time explains how it worked (note that his choice of words reflects his cynicism and disdain for the “method”):
- Missionary apartments were relocated to areas near major pedestrian shopping and transportation traffic centers.
- In Tokyo, existing chapels were used as teaching centers, and when distance from a chapel rendered that option unfeasible, offices were rented with the intent to use them for the same purpose and as branch meetinghouses. In outlying areas, missionary apartments were to be used as teaching centers as well as branch meeting-houses.
- Missionaries were no longer to waste their time tracting [going door to door]. They were instead instructed to use the major traffic centers as a resource pool, and make street contacts through a variety of cheap tricks, the most popular being to offer English lessons and tutoring (imagine a 19-year-old farm boy tutoring someone in English…).
- Missionaries were to target teens, young adults, and needy types in their street contacting. These were “easy marks.” They were to take advantage of a certain Japanese reluctance to directly disagree or contradict in face-to-face interaction, and were given techniques on how to establish an easy rapport and how to get the “mark” to constantly agree with the missionary. A pattern was developed so that the missionary could steer the conversation and control it. Then the missionary would get the “mark” to agree (easy by that time) to go with him/her and talk briefly about Something Very Important.
- The missionaries were to MAKE CONTACT AND NOT LOSE IT. They were to bring the “mark” to whatever teaching center had been designated and begin indoctrination immediately.
- The six missionary discussions were rewritten and condensed into six five- to ten-minute presentations. It was dramatized and made very charismatic. Missionaries were advised that they could “teach” all six discussions at once “if so directed by the spirit.”
- Following the mini-discussion presentation, missionaries were instructed to challenge the “mark” to baptism, immediately.
- If the “mark” accepted, missionaries were to contact their zone leaders and schedule a baptismal interview. Zone leaders were never more than ten or fifteen minutes away by train.
- Apartments/teaching centers/meeting-houses were all equipped with makeshift “baptismal fonts.” If the “mark” accepted and passed the “interview” (who would not? almost nobody failed it!), the “mark’ was loaned a white jumsuit or shift, and baptism immediately followed the six lessons and interview, witnessed by the Zone Leaders. Confirmation followed, again witnessed by the Zone Leaders.
- The entire process (contact to confirmation) was timed and refined until it was streamlined down to approximately 1.5 HOURS. It could be–and most frequently was–all done at the same time.
- The missionary was to exchange contact information (address and phone #) with the “new member,” give them a Book of Mormon, and give them a small map showing them where church services were held, times, etc.
- The contact was “allowed” to depart.
- New baptism statistics were posted weekly in the mission newsletter, to increase the level of competition among the missionaries.
- Missionaries were required to meet regularly for “mutual encouragement” meetings (rah-rah sessions). Zone or All-Mission Conferences were scheduled to raise the excitement level even further and sustain it at fever pitch.
- Never let up on the pressure to perform.
Another man who served in the same mission writes:
These are deep wounds, and I am touched and saddened to see how vivid the memories are for some of us.
A few additional details. Regarding the Groberg/Kikuchi model, the basic premise was a relentless focus on sheer numbers. If one in 100 (?) who hear the lessons are baptised and one in three (?) converts remain active, then teaching 300 lessons produces one active members. It follows that teaching 30,000 lessons must result in 100 active members. This quantitative logic is all that matters, since no individual human is valuable enough as a mere child of God to warrant personal attention. The rule, effectively, was to dump Japanese in the waters of baptism and then let the Lord sort them out.
Manipulative techniques. I should add … that not all of these practices came directly from Groberg and Kikuchi; a lot were innovations by missionaries who functioned under intense pressure. The leaders retrospectively claim that they did not know some of these things were happening–and that may be true, though I think there was, and still is, a lot of intentional ignorance.
With that caveat, we were taught to teach only young people, ideally men between 18 and 22, because they baptized the fastest. We were explicitly ordered not to teach families because they took too much time; and I know of one instance in which a companionship was punished for insisting on teaching a family. The entire lesson plan was condensed into one hour, and during that hour each missionary was to shake hands with the investigator at least ten times. This worked because Japanese don’t normally shake hands and the sudden, repetitive physical contact tended to facilitate persuasion. During that hour we were also to speak frequently in broken English, saying things like “berry, berry goodo” because that made the investigator feel like he was engaged in an English language conversation. Finally, once the baptism was done we were ordered to see each convert a maximum of one time, since it was now the members’ responsibility to develop and maintain a human connection. Friendships between missionaries and Japanese converts were virtually proscribed.
Of course, the missionaries were manipulated with equal cynicism and zeal. Status and approval were based on the number of baptisms a person could perform. This gave an advantage to the charismatic, strong personalities at the expense of quieter, often more sensitive and spiritual missionaries. The former rose fast through the hierarchy, becoming zone leaders and APs while the less forceful characters were continually condemned as inadequate, a disappointment to God, because they did not produce enough. Nor did personal “worthiness” matter. Missionaries turned to their old vices to let off steam; and if the leadership found out about their chemical or other indiscretions, the consequence was a demotion followed–assuming that the requisite number of baptisms was achieved–by immediate promotion back into the ranks of the godly. There was thus very little connection between the moral and ethical codes of our childhood congregations and the definition of success in the mission field.
So what happened as a result of all of this? Baptisms skyrocketed for a couple of years, until Groberg was replaced and some of his senior missionaries excommunicated for things that he had not wanted to see. The Church then tried to turn back the clock, but the prominent comedian Takeshi Beat made “accept baptism!” routines a staple of late night television and Japanese people, for various reasons, lost much of their interest in American culture and religion. As the rate of new baptisms fell through the 1980s and 1990s, one or two mission presidents tried to resurrect parts of the Groberg system but, frankly, the moment had passed and there was no Kikuchi to provide support.
Meanwhile, the missionaries returned to their home communities having been through hell. These were the years of Spencer Kimball, when “every young man must go on a mission and he will like it,” so our families and friends could not comprehend the stories we had to tell. We were shunned, avoided by members who were uncomfortable with us and in many instances condemned by local leaders who thought that we must surely be to blame for our pain. After all, the Lord’s Church could not possibly have done what we described. Some missionaries and their families complained to apostles–I am aware of two such conversations by friends’ parents–so it is pretty clear that SLC knew the depth and breadth of the problem. But rather than reaching out to help the missionaries or, at the very least, warning bishops and other leaders of the difficulties the RMs were bringing home, the brothren in SLC swept the whole thing under the rug, leaving the isolated and traumatized missionaries to work through the social ostracization, self-condemnation, and disillusionment in solitude.
Even today we cannot share these stories with Mormon friends. The truth is that the one thing the religion can never forgive–other than diety’s intransident decision, contrary to the urging of his prophets, to create a certain percentage of his children gay–is the arrogance of those who dare to have been harmed by the Church. It would be inconvenient and embarrassing, after all, to ask leaders to admit mistakes…
Let the Lord sort it out.
Another missionary describes how President Groberg “bullied, forced, coerced, threatened and at times, even blackmailed missionaries to perform ‘miracles.'” I used to say that it’s impossible to be too cynical about the LDS church, but this shocked even a hardened cynic like me. The words of another survivor of that mission sum things up for me: “I came home feeling robbed of spiritual nature of the experience, having been reduced to nothing more than a salesman with daily and weekly quotas that I couldn’t possibly live up to.” (For more recollections of missionaries from that era, see this discussion.)
I’d like to think that such practices are behind the church, but I suspect they aren’t. Similar methods were used in the England Manchester Mission in the 1990s. It’s a fair bet that it’s still going on, most likely in areas where the church has recently begun missionary work, such as Eastern Europe and Africa.