Robert L. LIVELY Jr, The Mormon Missionary: who Is That Knocking at My Door. Maryknoll, Miami: University Press of Florida, 2011. pp. 548, paperback. ISBN 978 0 8130 3608 3. Reviewed by Richard RYMARZ, The Broken Bay Institute, Sydney.
This is a comprehensive account of Mormon missionaries past, present and future. As I began the book I noticed that it was self published and, to be sure, the publishing world has changed somewhat in recent years. I am still wary, though, of work that has not gone through conventional peer reviewing. In the case of this study there is a strong impression as you read though the accounts of the 275 interviews that the author, a retired dean from the University of Maine Farmington, has produced here a labour of love. He does mention in the introduction that he has been fascinated with Mormon missionaries since his days as a doctoral student at Oxford. And this fasciation is carried through the book, perhaps, at the expense of some judicious editing! The author sees a key contribution of this study is that, as it has been compiled by a non-Mormon, it adds a distinctive voice to the discussion of an indigenous American religion and how it interacts with contemporary culture. As such, it is a valuable addition to the study of the Latter Day Saints. Few images of the LDS are as universal and potent as that of the missionary pair “labouring in the vineyard” with their characteristic uniform which speaks of a uniquely American religious movement. As the book points out, the scope of missionary endeavor by the LDS is vast and the commitment to mission is one of its key and enduring features.
A feature of the book is how the author is able to integrate an understanding of LDS theology with a conventional social science methodology that utilized face to face interviews with missionaries. This gives the work an added dimension as the author is able to place the missionary ideal in the context of Mormon self-understanding. This is especially helpful when he examines those who did not flourish during or after the missionary experience. Many of these individuals left the church and this is discussed in terms of a growing divergence between the stated goals of missionary service and the emerging views of some missionaries. The theological context of mission, therefore, is a critical tool in better understanding the motivation and expectations of those who take up the challenge of going on mission.
A feature of the book is the contextualization that it gives to mission work. This includes a close and detailed discussion of the training and rituals associated with preparation for mission work. Any student of the sociology of religion will recognize here classical themes such as providing a portal to the transcendent for those involved as well as embedding the missionaries in strong and enduring social networks. One way, for instance, that both of these goals are achieved is by the support given to missionaries by the religious community in the missionaries’ home region. The idea of being part of a larger movement that sees itself both grounded in this world but with clear aspirations to the next is expressed to the missionary in a variety of concrete ways. One of the most important of these are the expectations that are placed on young Mormons to take part in missionary activity. This is especially important for ensuring an esteemed place in the community after marriage. As well as giving a strong theoretical underpinning the reality of mission life are also comprehensively presented. On a practical level, for example, the contours of mission life are elaborately laid out in chapter 5 which sets out “rules, relations and reflections.”
There is a large range of missionary experiences recorded here but this can be both strength and a weakness. By interviewing missionaries whose experience in the field dates back decades the author is producing a powerful overview. It does, however, bring with it a certain lack of focus. I would have like to have seen more differentiation from missionaries who are yet to set out and those of former missionaries. There is a contrast between those preparing for mission today and, say, those whose mission experience dates back to the 1960’s. These experiences reflect very different cultural contexts in both overseas mission territories and in the United States. The book does provide this type of differentiation when it comes to contrasting international missions with those conducted in the United States. This contrast is well discussed in the eighth chapter and begins with the assumption that the international mission represents a different type of challenge to missionaries and so the training undertaken must reflect this difference.
On balance I think the sheer volume of data and analysis recorded here will provide those readers with an interest in the LDS and in missionary studies a fascinating and unique insight into the world of the Mormon missionary. The book also has an extensive reference list and is well indexed.