Missionary work, in the very early days of the restoration of the gospel through young Prophet Joseph Smith, was not really missionary work at all. Joseph Smith told his own minister about his first vision, and his fame spread abroad for good and ill from that point on. Once Joseph obtained the ancient gold plates and began translating the Book of Mormon into English, the news spread even faster. The Holy Spirit had prepared certain people to believe that the Lord’s true church did not exist upon the earth, but that it would someday be restored as in ancient times. Such a person was Martin Harris, who came forward to pay for the first printing of the Book of Mormon. Martin had been instructed by the Lord not to join any church until the words of Isaiah were fulfilled:
And the vision of all is become unto you as the words of a book that is sealed, which men deliver to one that is learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I cannot; for it is sealed: And the book is delivered to him that is not learned, saying read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I am not learned (Isaiah 29:11, 12).
The words were fulfilled before Martin’s eyes, when he took some translated pages to show to several noted linguists. Later, Martin received a witness from God that Joseph Smith was a true prophet.
Oliver Cowdery is another example. He became a teacher in Manchester, New York, and caught wind of the excitement illicited by the work of Joseph Smith. He “began to hear from all quarters concerning the plates, and as soon began to importune Mr. Smith upon the subject, but for a considerable length of time did not succeed in eliciting any information” (History of Joseph Smith, p. 138). Oliver continued to receive spiritual impressions, and though he still hadn’t met Joseph Smith face to face, felt like he would assist him with writing. He eventually acted as scribe to Joseph and was party to visions, revelations, and visitations with Joseph Smith.
When the Church was organized in 1830 on April 6th, only six men were present, the minimum number mandated by law to found an organization. On Sunday, the 11th, Oliver Cowdery delivered the Church’s first public discourse in the Whitmer Family home. Many people attended, and six were baptized. A week later, seven more people joined the Church. Later that month, Joseph Smith went to Colesville, where he held several meetings. Awhile afterwards, neighbors gathered at the home of Newel Knight, who could not seem to pray and was consumed with guilt, knowing he was possessed by a devil. Joseph Smith was summoned, and many witnessed Newel’s deliverance, when Joseph used his priesthood power to cast out the evil spirit. Many who witnessed the event were later baptized into the Church.
In June a church conference was held in Fayette. Many who were in attendance were investigating the Church. “Much exhortation and instruction was given, and the Holy Ghost was poured out upon us in a miraculous manner–many of our number prophesied, whilst others had the heavens opened to their view” (History of the Church, 1:84-86). Twelve people were baptized after the conference. Late in June, mobs interrupted a baptismal service in Colesville, and Joseph Smith was even arrested, but eventually, thirteen new members joined the Church.
During the summer of 1830 missionary work was instigated in other parts of New York State. People had shared the gospel with family, friends, and neighbors. Once the Book of Mormon was printed, public interest increased. In New York one Book of Mormon changed hands many times and finally ended up in the hands of Brigham Young, who would become the second prophet of the Church and lead the Mormon exodus to Utah. Early missionary efforts in New York were primarily from the dedicated work of Joseph Smith’s brother, Samuel. His early missionary efforts resulted in the conversion of some of the most influential leaders of the early Church. He eventually labored in New England, Ohio, and Missouri.
Parley P. Pratt was a restorationist (Campbellite) under the leadership of Sidney Rigdon. The Campbellites were among those faiths that believed true ancient religion needed to be restored. Pratt was a sincerely spiritual man and a preacher. He received a copy of the Book of Mormon from a Baptist deacon. Recounted Pratt:
I read all day; eating was a burden, I had no desire for food; sleep was a burden when the night came, for I preferred reading to sleep. As I read, the spirit of the Lord was upon me, and I knew and comprehended that the book was true, as plainly and manifestly as a man comprehends and knows that he exists. My joy was now full, as it were, and I rejoiced sufficiently to more than pay me for all the sorrows, sacrifices and toils of my life. I soon determined to see the young man who had been the instrument of its discovery and translation” (Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, p. 20-22).
The Church was only six months old when Oliver Cowdery was called to preach to the “Lamanites,” the Indians on the U.S. frontier. After teaching a few Indian tribes, Cowdery and his party met in Ohio with Sidney Rigdon, who had some questions regarding Campbellite doctrine. Rigdon didn’t immediately join the Church, but he allowed the missionaries to preach to his congregation. A “large and respectable congregation assembled.” People thronged the missionaries night and day. Within three weeks, 127 people were baptized. The Ohio conversions more than doubled church membership in only three weeks. Sidney Rigdon visited Joseph Smith in New York and became a powerful leader in the Church. An accomplished orator, he also served as a scribe for the Prophet.
As the Church grew, the Saints gathered in Ohio. They had been persecuted every step of the way, but their numbers continued to increase. Missionaries were sent out repeatedly throughout the Northeast, especially while the Saints centered in Kirtland. Despite harrassment, these early missionaries were remarkably successful. During the mid-1830’s many church leaders left their families behind to serve numerous individual missions. Parley P. Pratt preached in Canada, converting future prophet John Taylor. The Fielding Family also came into the fold. When rampant monetary speculation in America ended in an economic crash, the “Kirtland Safety Society” also failed. Since Joseph Smith was involved with the “bank,” many people left the Church. During this period of grave crisis, the Lord revealed to Joseph Smith that “something new must be done for the salvation of His Church.” Just at the moment that some of the most prominent of its leaders were leaving the Church, the Lord commanded Joseph to send his most loyal servants to prostelyte in Europe. Some modern Mormon scholars consider this ample proof that Joseph Smith worked through revelation when he made his decisions, since this decision seemed like nosense to everyone who was thinking only with logic. Those who were spiritually in tune heeded the call.
Proselyting missions in Europe, especially in the British Isles, changed the face of the Church and brought in thousands of new converts. Virtually all of them gathered to the main body of the Church in the U.S. and became the backbone of its membership. European converts were still gathering when the Saints made the trek to Utah and for years afterwards. Missionaries were then sent to the South Pacific, where nowadays, the percentage of Mormons in the island populations is extremely high.
Go to the next article in the Missionaries section: Vision Missionary Work.