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What If This Were Your Introduction to the Church?

By: Ardis E. Parshall - September 04, 2008

The Czechoslovakian Mission was opened on 24 July 1929, after years of prayers and letters by a woman and her two daughters who had joined the Church elsewhere and returned to Prague (theirs is a marvelous story; I may blog it soon, with pictures). The missionaries’ first task was to learn Czech, a difficult and slow process for most of the first eight elders. Even before they could speak with their contacts, though, they were distributing leaflets with the Articles of Faith on one side, the text below on the other side, with an invitation to attend meetings at a given address.

Presumably the leaflet was written in grammatical Czech, either with the help of the three local members or some hired translator. Let’s assume language was no barrier, so that the following message came through clearly and without reason to scoff at the education or social status of the missionaries.

INVESTIGATION WILL REVEAL

That the young man who presented this leaflet has a message of vital interest to the whole world. This message is presented to the people of this country who love liberty, righteousness, and personal freedom of thought and action, with the assurance that it will receive due consideration.

That he is giving two to three years of his life without pecuniary compensation to the teaching of this message, because he knows that it is a priceless gift that will enrich human life beyond measure; and because he desires to help mankind.

That he is a missionary of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sometimes called the “Mormon” Church, and that he is affording you the opportunity of hearing its doctrines.

That this Church was organized humbly through revelation from God one hundred years ago, but that it has grown to occupy a position of great prominence in the world. It has built cities and conquered deserts and brought contentment to its many members in all parts of the world. The Church has often chosen heavy sacrifices in order that its members might exercise, unmolested, liberty and personal freedom of thought.

That this Church has a practical as well as a spiritual philosophy of life, which will save the body as well as the soul, and make accessible to mankind the comforts of life, and a sweetness and an enrichment of body, mind and soul.

That upon this Church has been placed the divine obligation of presenting to every person the opportunity of enjoying the possibilities of the eternal plan of life. Therefore it has in the world, to-day, two thousand five hundred young men, such as the one who presented this leaflet, who are bearing this message of life to all peoples, for everyone must have the opportunity of hearing it.

That the force which moves this people to great accomplishments, and stirs the hearts of these young men to proclaim their message to all the world, is the gospel of Jesus Christ as taught by Him during his life, and restored in this day through the instrumentality of Joseph Smith, the Prophet. These people accept Christ’s doctrines without change and live them.

That the articles on the other side summarize briefly the doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

(“The First Czech Tract,” Millennial Star, 31 October 1929, 700-701)

A second tract was ready for distribution a month later which went into much greater doctrinal detail. Its sections were headed:

Complete Religion
The Importance of Good Health
The Higher Socialism
In Union There is Strength
Man Cannot Be Saved in Ignorance
The Way to Freedom
“Man Does Not Live by Bread Alone”
The Restoration of the Gospel
The Test of Truth

So far as I can tell, this second leaflet is standard Gospel fare, suitable for use with any people in any language, with the exceptions of an economic argument that seems aimed at a Europe still suffering the after-effects of World War I; and two sections tailored to appeal directly to Czech pride:

The moral well-being of a man must be a distinct concern of the Church. The words of President Masaryk are the doctrine of true Christianity: “Our way to freedom is education and morality.” The practice of the principles taught by the ten commandments and the beatitudes, and obedience to just human laws, are expected of every member of the Church of Christ.

and

The proof of truth is not in age or numbers or fame, but in its results. Radio is new, but, since it is sound science, it is of world service; Komensky was once alone in his educational theories, but they were founded in truth and now the whole educational world is following him; the Czech nation was long in bondage, but its idealism and high principles have enabled it in a few years to set an example in wise government which is the admiration of the world. Radio, Komensky and the Czech nation are known “by their fruits.”

(“Another Tract for the Czechs,” Millennial Star, 28 November 1920, 761-765)

I have posted the full text of the second tract where its length won’t intimidate those who prefer the usual length blog post; if you read it, please return here to comment.

So, if this were your first introduction to the Gospel as taught by the Mormon elders, how do you suppose you would respond?



14 Comments »

  1. This second tract, with its paean to the Czech nation, makes me wonder how the Slovaks felt about it all.

    Comment by Mark B. — September 4, 2008 @ 6:28 am

  2. The mission at this point was centered entirely at Prague — I doubt the Slovaks (or even many Czechs, for that matter) had any awareness of the arrival of the Mormons.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 4, 2008 @ 7:10 am

  3. The first tract was very beautifully written. Hopefully it was also beautifully translated.

    At one point on my mission, we had an investigator, a doctor who was on fellowship in Germany from Ankara. He read the Book of Mormon selections in Turkish (it was not available in its entirety then). He would sigh and express a desire to re-translate it properly. We encouraged him to do so, but like many of these missionary stories, I don’t know if anything came of it because my 18 months were up at that point.

    Translation does open up the potential to many funny misunderstandings. However, as with many of you, I have seen how the spirit of missionary work has the potential to smooth over some of the rough spots.

    Comment by Researcher — September 4, 2008 @ 7:46 am

  4. Researcher, you recall for me a recent discussion on another blog bemoaning the lack of non-English translations of secondary Mormon works. While native English-speakers with foreign language skills could probably make rough translations into the target languages, it really takes native speakers, like your Turkish doctor, to produce a translation where gaffes don’t detract from the message. I mean, I can translate from French to English as well as I write English, but no Frenchman would have the patience to read what I might translate in the other direction!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 4, 2008 @ 8:26 am

  5. Thanks for this, Ardis. My brother was part of the first group of missionaries to go to Czechoslovakia after the Velvet Revolution. I got to go with my parents to pick him up after and will never forget the experience. These first Saints laid a foundation that persisted through the cold war.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 4, 2008 @ 8:48 am

  6. Apparently there was some success in Czechoslovakia from this sort of contact. During the 10 years that the Czech mission was open, it enjoyed measured growth. In July 1937, H. J. Grant visited the mission and was met in Prague, according to the Church News by an “eager and excited crowd of members, friends and missionaires.” When Grant spoke at the Prague branch, the “branch hall was filled to overflowing with members and friends.” The CN, however, does not mention how many were at each gathering.

    I know I’m getting a little off track here (I appologize). But in addition to the tracts Ardis mentions, one of the more successful ways missionaries in the Czech mission made contacts was through basketball. In the early 1930s, “basketball proselyting” was quite popular among missionaries in the European missions.

    Comment by Steve C. — September 4, 2008 @ 8:58 am

  7. Thanks, J. and Steve.

    Almost anything is on track here. I’ve been trying to imagine whether or not these tracts would have caught my attention, or whether I would have taken the time to read all the way through, and what image of the church I might have formed from reading them. For that, the tracts could have been produced for any new mission — the Czech tracts are just the ones I happened to run across. But discussing what grew out of these, and how and when and where, is as on track as anything else.

    I keep running into reports of missionary basketball teams, so I know they were widespread. Has anybody written about them, or should I be gathering the bits and pieces to put it together myself?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 4, 2008 @ 9:20 am

  8. The Czech Mission reopened for a few years after the Second World War, from June 1946 until April 1950. At the end the the war, the Czech district president knew the whereabouts of 86 members in the country.

    When Ardis is through working the miracles of historical research that she’s currently engaged in, she can find out if any of those 86 members have family who renewed their connection to the church in the 1940s, and who have descendants who were still committed to the church in 1990 when the missionaries returned.

    On a side note, a brief summary of church history in Czechoslovakia (here) says that in the 1930s a man named Josef Strobel was the first Czech baptized in America. There was an elder in my mission named Joseph Strobel–he and I were in Kochi, Japan, from December 1974 until April 1975–and his nephew, also named Joseph, served in New York a few years ago. I’m guessing there’s a connection, but will leave it to Ardis to find that too!

    Comment by Mark B. — September 4, 2008 @ 10:41 am

  9. About basketball teams, I heard back in the 1960s of a missionary team that played down in South America–Argentina perhaps. Apparently they were pretty good. If I remember correctly (or at all), they played against some second-rate team, played hard but lost. Then without much time for rest or recovery, they played the best team around (regional, national? don’t recall), and beat them. Running and not being weary seems to have been the point of the story.

    Comment by Mark B. — September 4, 2008 @ 10:44 am

  10. I think that first tract was quite good.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — September 4, 2008 @ 12:39 pm

  11. Mark B., your comment got caught in the spam filter again, and I didn’t see it for hours. Sorry. I don’t know what Akismet has against you!

    Hmmm … I know how I would solve the Strobel connection, when I have time. Tracking living people is tricky, but then so am I. (Is there a smiley for a wry, don’t-take-me-too-seriously comment?)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 4, 2008 @ 6:36 pm

  12. It’s fascinating to read how the Church and Gospel were presented in different times and different countries. Honestly, I’m not sure how I would react, since I’m not sure my natural personality would be very open to prophetic claims if I hadn’t been raised in that type of tradition.

    Comment by Ray — September 4, 2008 @ 9:22 pm

  13. I think the first tract would at least pique my interest.

    Ardis, if you keep researching the Czech mission, you may end up telling stories about my grandfather (with your wonderful illustrative twist), who was one of those first elders and the mission president in Czechoslovakia from before the Nazis invaded through the Cold War. That would be totally awesome, because I love those stories. Not that I’m encouraging that or anything. ;)

    If you end up wanting to track living folks across the pond, you might have good luck working through the Wallace Toronto Foundation:

    http://www.torontofoundation.org/

    The foundation stays well-connected to the Church and the mission there in order to facilitate service projects. They are very much interested in the history of the Church in the region.

    And I think you’d love my grandmother’s autobiography, “A Cherry Tree Behind the Iron Curtain”. It’s available on the site as a scanned PDF. It’s one of those little-known historical gems, IMO.

    Comment by The Right Trousers — September 4, 2008 @ 11:21 pm

  14. Ah, yes, I’ve run into Elder Toronto any number of times, starting a few years ago with 1950 newspaper articles! It would be a challenge to come up with something you don’t already know, TRT, but maybe I’d have a source or two that was new.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 5, 2008 @ 6:13 am

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