“#AlmaMissingAmulek”: Contemporary LDS Missionaries and Theories of Pilgrimage

As of December 31, 2014, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) had over 85,000 missionaries serving in 406 different missions throughout the world.[1] Most young Mormon men and rapidly increasing numbers of Mormon women see missionary service as a rite of passage, a duty to their family, to their church, and to their god that will bring blessings to themselves and to their families for years to come. Over the course of two years for men and eighteen months for women, missionaries work in rotating teams of two to spread their Gospel and teach people about their beliefs, with the ultimate goal of baptizing as many new converts as possible before their mission is over. Armed with copies of the Book of Mormon and church-approved pamphlets breaking down the fundamental tenets of Mormonism, missionaries take to the streets with one goal: to proselytize. LDS missionaries, though, might also be thought of as pilgrims, of sorts, pilgrims following in the footsteps of the powerful, persuasive missionaries they’ve read about in the Book of Mormon.

Anthropologist Victor Turner describes pilgrimage as a “‘liminal’ phenomena.”[2] “The liminal stage,” Turner says, “when the subject is in spatial separation from the familiar and the habitual, constitutes a cultural domain that is extremely rich in cosmological meaning…”[3] Liminal, in other words, is an in-between state, a state of transition, one that exists on a threshold. Additionally, for Turner, a pilgrimage is a journey to what he calls a sacred or pilgrim center that marks the closest connection to the divine. Turner also cites communitas as an integral element of pilgrimage, which he describes as a “modality of social relatedness”[4] where individuals view “each other as equals, each an integral person rather than a social persona segmentalized into a series and a set of structural roles and statuses.”[5] During communitas, typical social and power relationships that exist outside of the liminal space become deemphasized and allow pilgrims to view others as equals, rather than belonging to previously ascribed categories. Turner, in defining communitas as a necessary part of pilgrimage, suggests that a specific type of relationship exists between pilgrims when they occupy this liminal space at the same time.

Contrary, though, to Turner’s notion of communitas, John Eade and Michael J. Sallnow suggest that, “it is necessary to develop a view of pilgrimage not merely as a field of social relations but also as a realm of competing discourses.”[6] Eade and Sallnow, instead of emphasizing the positive, equitable relationships between pilgrims, choose to emphasize the contestation that occurs at various pilgrimage sites. Additionally, Eade and Sallnow define three distinct types of pilgrimage: place-centered, person-centered, and text-centered. Just as Turner describes a sacred center, so too do Eade and Sallnow, however, they assert that, “the sacred center…can take many different forms,”[7] namely a focus on a person, place, or text (or a combination thereof). For Eade and Sallnow, the sacred center is not always a static place. Rather, the power of a sacred center can come from “the inherent sanctity of a holy person[8] through “the personification of the sacred center.”[9] Similarly, for text-centered pilgrimage, a holy text “is itself the ultimate source of power,”[10] meaning that the strongest connection to the divine is accessed, not through sacred spaces, but through sacred texts. Eade and Sallnow’s notions of pilgrimage, then, rely more heavily on categorizations of various pilgrimages rather than outlining definitions.

LDS missions and missionaries, though, fit many of both Turner’s and Eade and Sallnow’s criteria of what constitutes a pilgrimage, and applying theories of pilgrimage to LDS missions can perhaps be useful in gaining a broader understanding of how the term “pilgrimage” can be applied to less overt forms of pilgrimage. While missions and missionaries may not fall directly into the pilgrimage category, LDS missions can be thought of as pilgrimage-like, performing a similar purpose for missionaries as more traditional forms of pilgrimage do for the pilgrims who embark on such journeys.

In thinking about LDS missions as being pilgrimage-like journeys, the terms scholars use to describe missions can be telling about the way missions function in the lives of returned missionaries and their families. Elisa Eastwood Pulido, in her chapter on female missionary experiences, cites Victor Turner and his use of the word “liminal” in discussing the different experiences of female versus male missionaries. Pulido writes, “As the LDS Church continues to expect missionary service from young men, a mission remains a liminal experience for young males.”[11] Pulido then introduces a second term, also attributed to Turner, to describe the experience of female missionaries. She says, “Anthropologist Victor Turner’s word ‘liminoid’ [italics added] describes optionality in terms of liminal or threshold experiences.”[12] A liminoid experience would be more akin to what female missionaries would experience because of the Church’s ambiguous language describing the obligation (or lack thereof) for women to serve missions. Although Pulido doesn’t specifically mention pilgrimage or Turner’s studies associated with pilgrimage, her reference to Victor Turner and the idea of liminality begins to align missionaries with pilgrims.

Similarly, missionaries fit well into the person-centered pilgrimage category described by Eade and Sallnow in that many missionaries associate the work they do while on a mission with the work that the prophets and missionaries in the Book of Mormon do. Pulido, perhaps inadvertently, argues for this very point. In thinking about female Mormon missionaries, Pulido quotes a song often sung by Mormon children in church that instills in them the desire to be good missionaries. A portion of the lyrics says, “We are as the army of Helaman, / We have been taught in our youth. / And we will be the Lord’s missionaries / To bring the world his truth.”[13] In the Book of Mormon, Helaman, the son of Alma, is best known for leading an army of two thousand warriors, but he was also a missionary himself. Alma 45:22 says, “Therefore, Helaman and his brethren went forth to establish the church again in all the land, yea, in every city throughout all the land which was possessed by the people of Nephi.”[14] Even in primary songs, young Mormon children are already being primed to associate with the missionaries in the Book of Mormon when they become missionaries themselves.

This language of aligning contemporary missionaries with those found in scriptures continues beyond primary songs sung in church and extends even to the way the LDS Church describes its own missionaries. On an official LDS-run website, the Church describes its missionary work as, “based on the New Testament pattern of missionaries serving in pairs, teaching the gospel and baptizing believers in the name of Jesus Christ (see, for example, the work of Peter and John in the book of Acts).”[15] The constant reminder from the LDS Church to missionaries and future missionaries that they are doing the work of those described in their scriptures serves as an indicator that LDS missionaries are, in some way, embarking on a person-centered pilgrimage. Although Mormon missionaries are scattered in countries throughout the world, speaking different languages, and facing vastly different challenges, each missionary brings with them the same stories of the people they aspire to become while serving their mission.

LDS missionaries, themselves, come to identify with certain missionaries in the Book of Mormon and the Bible through the experiences they have while on their mission. Mormon missionaries are severely limited in the communication they can have with family and friends while they are serving on their missions, but each week, missionaries are allowed to send emails home. Many missionaries send generic updates, which their family will post to a blog to provide updates about their missionary’s experience to family and friends. One missionary writes, “I have been studying a lot about the missionaries in the Book of Mormon, searching for ways that they accomplished their purpose and fulfilled what they were called to do. I want so deeply to just do all that Heavenly Father wants me to do.”[16] By turning to the Book of Mormon and studying the actions of the missionaries in the scriptures, this particular missionary is not only aligning himself with those missionaries, but also working to emulate their actions. His use of the Book of Mormon as a study guide for his own mission then serves a similar purpose to that of Helaman in the primary song.

Similarly, another missionary began to align himself with the actions and words of prophets and missionaries, seeing his actions and words as reflections of what they would have done. This missionary writes about an experience he and his companion had when they blessed a dying bird on the side of the road. Immediately after the blessing, the bird takes off and flies away, and the elder writes, “I know that my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ would have done the same thing.”[17] On a different day, this same elder describes a spiritual moment he had while teaching a lesson to a family of potential converts. He writes, “Nothing I teach anymore feels like my own words. I honestly feel as if everything that comes out of my mouth is what my Father in Heaven would like to say to His children.”[18] Although this is a different sort of alignment with individuals from the scriptures, this missionary is still working to emulate such holy figures and even begins to identify his work with the work of those that he is striving to be like.

Other instances of missionaries being aligned with certain prophets have come not only from themselves but also from other missionaries they work with. One missionary shares a story saying, “The missionaries in the district call us [himself and his companion] Elder Holland and Elder Bednar. We are striving to be missionaries like Ammon, Alma, and others.”[19] Elder Holland and Elder Bednar, both high-ranking apostles within the LDS Church, both served missions and, as members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, hold the title of prophet, seer, and revelator. This missionary and his companion are not only being aligned with current prophets within in the LDS Church, they are also aligning themselves with Ammon and Alma, both important missionaries in the Book of Mormon.

Because of the way missionaries think of themselves as following in the same paths as missionaries and prophets before them, LDS missionaries can be thought of as pilgrim-like individuals, embarking on person and text centered missions that are very comparable to pilgrimages. The LDS church, too, uses language in official texts that suggests that going on a mission may be an experience somewhat akin to going on a pilgrimage. Even when missionaries aren’t describing themselves in terms of missionaries and prophets from the scriptures, the role the liminal space of their mission has a similar role to that of the liminal space on a pilgrimage. The relationship of communitas that Turner describes as existing between pilgrims also exists between missionaries, and the identity that a missionary has while serving a mission has a similar function to the identity of a pilgrim. One elder, upon returning home following the completion of his mission, shares a piece of advice that his brother gave him. His brother said, “When you wear your suit coat…place your name tag on the inside to remind you of who you have become.”[20] This advice from the missionary’s brother reflects not only the change in identity one goes through while serving a mission, but also the importance of that identity on the individual after his or her mission has ended. Additionally, the notion of wearing the nametag as a reminder of one’s identity as a missionary is similar to markers that pilgrims will sometimes have to identify themselves. Many pilgrimages have equalizing factors, oftentimes evident in dress, that suppress differences among pilgrims. LDS missions function in a similar manner.

All male missionaries wear dress pants, white button-down shirts, and a tie. All female missionaries dress in skirts that cover their knees and nice blouses. The greatest equalizing factor, though, is the nametag. Every missionary wears a nametag with their title, Elder or Sister, followed by their last name, with the words, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” printed underneath. These nametags serve as reminders and markers of their purpose for the missionaries, but they also serve as identifiers for the people around them. The nametag, in many ways, has a similar function to that of the scallop shell on the Camino or the staff and henro hat carried by Shikoku pilgrims. The nametag is an equalizer among missionaries and a marker that sets them apart from the rest of the world.

Upon returning home from her mission, one sister missionary posted a picture online that was taken of her while she was serving her mission. The caption described how much she missed being on her mission, and one of her former companions commented on the picture. Her companion wrote, “#AlmaMissingAmulek.” Although perhaps a trivial example of the way missionaries align themselves with prophets and missionaries from the scriptures, the comment from her companion shows just how much LDS missionaries see themselves as following in the footsteps of the great missionaries they’ve read about since childhood.

Pilgrims and missionaries, though, are not identical, of course, but the trajectory of a mission, the relationships formed with both fellow missionaries and imagined versions of ancient and contemporary LDS prophets, closely resembles a pilgrimage and the way pilgrims identify with the sacred centers of their respective pilgrimages. In many ways, the Book of Mormon and the individuals, Ammon, Alma, and Helaman, among others, serve as the sacred centers for LDS missionaries while serving their missions. While it may not be entirely accurate to categorize missions as pilgrimages, they are certainly pilgrimage-like, sharing many symbols and elements, which Victor Turner and Eade and Sallnow all identify as being fundamental aspects of pilgrimage.

Bibliography

Abbott, Jaden. “Missionary Moving Service.” elderjadenabbott.blogspot.com. Last modified March 2, 2015. http://elderjadenabbott.blogspot.com/2015/03/missionary-moving-service.html.

—. “Six Months Gone? Or Eighteen Months Left?” elderjadenabbott.blogspot.com. Last modified February 17, 2015. http://elderjadenabbott.blogspot.com/2015/02/6-months-gone-or-18-months-left.html.

“Alma 45:22.” in The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 321-322.

“April 2015 General Conference News and Announcements.” lds.org. Last modified April 3, 2015. https://www.lds.org/church/news/april-2015-general-conference-news-and-announcements.

Cluff, Colton. “A Good Day to Smile!” edlerdavidcluff.blogspot.com. Last modified June 16, 2014. http://elderdavidcluff.blogspot.com/2014/06/a-good-day-to-smile.html.

Cluff, David. “The View is Great!” elderdavidcluff.blogspot.com. Last modified March 31, 2014. http://elderdavidcluff.blogspot.com/2014/03/the-view-is-great.html.

Eade, John and Sallnow, Michael J. Introduction to Contesting the Sacred: The Anthropology of Pilgrimage. Edited by John Eade and Michael J. Sallnow (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000).

“Missionary Program.” mormonnewsroom.org. http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/topic/missionary-program.

Nelson, Stephen. “3 Nephi 7.” elderstephennelson.blogspot.com. Last modified February 18, 2015. http://elderstephennelson.blogspot.com/2015/02/3-nephi-7.html.

Perry, Janice Kapp. “We’ll Bring the World His Truth,” lds.org. https://www.lds.org/music/library/childrens-songbook/well-bring-the-world-his-truth-army-of-helaman.

Pulido, Elisa Eastwood. “Missions,” in Mormon Women Have Their Say: Essays from the Claremont Oral History Collection. ed. Claudia L. Bushman and Caroline Kline (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2013).

Turner, Victor. “The Center Out There: Pilgrim’s Goal,” History of Religions 12, no. 3 (1973): 191, accessed April 9, 2015, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1062024.

[1] “April 2015 General Conference News and Announcements,” lds.org, last modified April 3, 2015, https://www.lds.org/church/news/april-2015-general-conference-news-and-announcements.

[2] Victor Turner, “The Center Out There: Pilgrim’s Goal,” History of Religions 12, no. 3 (1973): 191, accessed April 9, 2015, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1062024.

[3] Ibid., 213.

[4] Ibid. 216.

[5] Ibid.

[6] John Eade and Michael J. Sallnow, introduction to Contesting the Sacred: The Anthropology of Pilgrimage, edited by John Eade and Michael J. Sallnow (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000), 5.

[7] Ibid. 9.

[8] Ibid. 6.

[9] Ibid. 7.

[10] Ibid. 9.

[11] Elisa Eastwood Pulido, “Missions,” in Mormon Women Have Their Say: Essays from the Claremont Oral History Collection, ed. Claudia L. Bushman and Caroline Kline (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2013), 178.

[12] Ibid. 178.

[13] Janice Kapp Perry, “We’ll Bring the World His Truth,” lds.org, https://www.lds.org/music/library/childrens-songbook/well-bring-the-world-his-truth-army-of-helaman.

[14] “Alma 45:22,” in The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 321-322.

[15] “Missionary Program,” mormonnewsroom.org, http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/topic/missionary-program.

[16] Stephen Nelson, “3 Nephi 7,” elderstephennelson.blogspot.com, last modified February 18, 2015, http://elderstephennelson.blogspot.com/2015/02/3-nephi-7.html

[17] Jaden Abbott, “Missionary Moving Service,” elderjadenabbott.blogspot.com, last modified March 2, 2015, http://elderjadenabbott.blogspot.com/2015/03/missionary-moving-service.html.

[18] Jaden Abbott, “Six Months Gone? Or Eighteen Months Left?,” elderjadenabbott.blogspot.com, last modified February 17, 2015, http://elderjadenabbott.blogspot.com/2015/02/6-months-gone-or-18-months-left.html.

[19] Colton Cluff, “A Good Day to Smile!,” edlerdavidcluff.blogspot.com, last modified June 16, 2014, http://elderdavidcluff.blogspot.com/2014/06/a-good-day-to-smile.html.

[20] David Cluff, “The View is Great!,” elderdavidcluff.blogspot.com, last modified March 31, 2014, http://elderdavidcluff.blogspot.com/2014/03/the-view-is-great.html.

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