What follows is a reading given over the BBC radio network in 1956, by Daniel W. Beach. I have been away from the Archives for a couple of weeks and haven’t been able to research the hometowns or full names of the two missionaries discussed here, or the dates of their missions – evidently a year or two post-World War II – but when I am able to do that I will amend this post.
[Update: Maurine gets the prize, if I had one. “Joe” is Joseph W. Brooks of Sugar House, who was called to the British Mission in September 1948; “Dan” is Danford C. Bickmore of Paradise, called to the British Mission in January 1949.]
“Mormons?” I said when I heard that my mother had decided to take two American Mormon missionaries into our home. “Aren’t those the chaps who used to have lots of wives and built Salt Lake City? I thought they died out long ago.”
Apparently there were still some about, and I must say my curiosity was stimulated. I hardly knew what to expect. I suppose I had vague ideas of soberly clad old gentlemen, perhaps with beards – I seemed to recall seeing somewhere a portrait of Brigham Young looking very sober and very hairy about the face – but so long as they did not arrive with placards around their necks imploring me to “Prepare to meet my Maker” I saw no reason to complain.
I happened to be in the hall the following afternoon when the doorbell rang. There on the doorstep stood two young men who looked as though they had stepped right out of a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer college musical. They wore suits of the lightest powder blue, draped from massive footballers’ shoulders in an immaculate “V,” and ties which defied the spectrum to do better. One carried a heavily labeled portmanteau, to which was strapped a baseball bat, while the other had a basketball tucked under his arm.
“Hi!” said the taller of the two – and both were well over six feet tall – relinquishing his hold on the portmanteau and taking my hand in a grip which threatened to ruin me for life.
“I’m Elder Brooks and this is Elder Bickmore.”
Our Mormons had arrived.
They went into the business of settling in with typical American thoroughness. Within a couple of hours they had completely transformed their room. College pennants appeared on the walls, the top of the wardrobe bristled with sports equipment, and the windowsill served as an improved bookshelf. On the back of the door they pinned an imposing looking blank time table, while the dressing table provided the homely touch, photographs of smiling family groups and a couple of rather fetching young American girls.
The family addressed them as Elder – their rank in the Church – for a couple of days. After that it was Joe and Dan for the rest of their stay in my mother’s house.
We soon learned from Joe and Dan that our limited knowledge of Mormons was, to say the least, somewhat out of date. In the first place, far from having died out, the Mormon Church was flourishing and expanding all over the world, hence the presence of these two lads who had come across at their own expense to spread their particular brand of the Gospel.
Then we discovered that their real title is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – such a mouthful that they themselves are content to condense it to Latter-day Saints.
They found themselves saddled with the title of “Mormons” by their enemies in the last century and the name has stuck. It was taken from their Holy Book, the Book of Mormon, which is an account of the history of an ancient tribe which inhabited the American continent. Joseph Smith, the founder of the sect, claimed that the contents of the Book had been given to him by divine revelation. His claim cost him his life at the hands of a mob, and the Mormons endured years of persecution before they were allowed to live in peace.
We also found that the practice of polygamy, or as they call it, plural marriage, had long been discontinued. The Mormons, like the rest of us, find the maintenance of one wife a big enough headache for any one man. Neither Joe nor Dan was married, though each of them had the physique of a Hollywood idol, and a gay charm which the average lady-killer would have given his eyeteeth for.
They certainly needed to be tough, did Joe and Dan, for the demands of the spiritual duties were enough to make a parish priest turn pale. Each morning they would set off early on their rounds, calling from door to door. They would introduce themselves and give a brief outline of their religious beliefs. They would leave a Book of Mormon, and promise to call back at a later date. In the main people treated them politely, but occasionally they had a hostile reception. A hundred years of prejudice and misrepresentation are not easily overcome in an afternoon. However, they stuck to it in all weathers, and at the slightest sign of interest in their religion, they would go to endless trouble to obtain a conversion.
In the evening they frequently held open-air meetings in the marketplace. Of course, they had their regulars, bar-parlour wits filling in a cheery hour before they settled down to their beer and dominoes, but it was all taken in good part, and the boys usually managed to hand out as much as they received.
If they were not speaking they were visiting members of their Church, or sitting at home, typing out reports for the central office in London. If they ever felt tired or dispirited, they never showed any sign of it in my mother’s home.
Every Sunday they would conduct three services for the members of their Church in a small hired hall which had been used the previous night for dancing. Busy young men, were Joe and Dan.
But even so they found time for relaxation. They were both members of a Church basketball team who styled themselves “The Saints,” and every week they would be off to some YMCA or college gymnasium, taking on the local talent, usually with striking success. On Saturday afternoon you would find them wending their way to the local park in order to teach baseball to a crowd of youngsters. To the Mormons, vigorous exercise is as good for the soul as a prayer, and our two boys managed to combine the two activities very nicely.
The effect of their coming upon our household was quite profound. You couldn’t live with Joe and Dan for long without feeling their influence upon your daily life. Their cheerful manner was infectious; no matter how miserable the day they would greet it with a smile. The practice of asking a blessing on our food had died a natural death in our household years ago, except for the occasional visit of a minister, or perhaps at Christmas time. Now it was suddenly revived. When they sat down to their first meal in our house, Joe bowed his head and asked God to bless the food. I was caught with a mouthful half chewed and another on the end of my fork. From then onwards I was careful to wait, and before very long each member of the family was taking a turn at asking the blessing. Somehow we all seemed to find mealtimes much more enjoyable.
There were certain foods which were strictly taboo on religious grounds. Mormons do not drink tea and coffee, and never touch spirits. That caused a spot of reorganization in the kitchen, but my mother somehow managed to stop them from dehydrating. Solids were not so difficult. They would eat practically anything and usually managed to pack away enormous quantities of food.
However, once a month they had a day of fasting, when they would not touch a morsel. It was enough to break your heart to see these hearty trenchermen denying themselves the steaming hot plates of beef and potatoes running with rich brown gravy which my mother placed before the family. I’m afraid my father and I tended to be a little merciless with our humor on fasting days, while mother, with the true housewife’s intolerance of an empty male stomach, would do her level best to persuade them to take a bite of food.
But go out they did, and never once did they break their fast until it had run its full course. Only once did I ever see Mormons take spirits, and that was a mistake. It was at my wedding reception. We managed to fix them up with lemonade for the toast, but clean forgot about the sherry in the trifle. They tucked into the trifle with such obvious relish that no one had the heart or the courage to tell them what they had eaten.
When I was a boy we were a great family for hymns around the piano on Sunday night after chapel. Joe and Dan revived that custom. The Mormon hymns have a dash and verve that could only come from the New world – and these, combined with the old favorites out of the Methodist hymn book, served to enliven and enrich our Sunday evenings. Dan would start up on the piano, giving it plenty of good honest fortissimo, and the rest of us would let rip with uninhibited pleasure. Oh, they were grand Sunday evenings with our Mormon friends.
When we didn’t sing we discussed the Gospels. Out would come the Bibles, and we would haggle and argue over the interpretation of a text until the early hours. These boys certainly knew their Bible. They had been brought upon it from an early age, they loved it and they lived it. These unpaid ministers of the gospel from America were living examples of Christianity – Christianity with a laugh or a smile – not the variety threatening hell-fire just around the corner for the wayward.
Joe and Dan didn’t convert us to their faith, but they certainly stimulated us to a greater awareness of our own. By their example of good living, their firm belief in the power and love of God, and by their simple goodwill towards their fellow-men, they showed us only too clearly that we had been missing a lot for a long time.
When Joe and Dan had completed their mission tour, others followed. They were the sons of bankers, farmers, teachers, mechanics, some rich, some poor, but all fired with the same enthusiasm and the same unswerving faith which had been so apparent in Joe and Dan.
We once asked one boy, the son of a small farmer, how his father could possibly cope with the financial burden of supporting two sons in the mission field at the same time. His brother was a missionary in Finland. He replied quite simply: “When we came on the mission, God increased my father’s crops three-fold.”
Such is the simple faith of the Mormons.
With the outbreak of the Korean War, the young Mormons temporarily relinquished their draped suits for the uniform of the U.S.A. Forces, and we saw them no more in my mother’s house. When the last one left it was as though the lights had been dimmed.