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Origin of the “Threefold Mission of the Church” Statement

By: Ardis E. Parshall - December 10, 2009

The Salt Lake Tribune is announcing, apparently on the authority of a statement by Church spokesman Scott Trotter, that a fourth “mission” — to care for the poor and needy — is indeed being added to the traditional formulation of the Church’s unique responsibilities in the world to “proclaim the gospel, perfect the Saints, and redeem the dead.” This news has already been discussed in the bloggernacle (by Chris Henrichsen here, for example, drawing on David H. Sundwall’s report here), and will no doubt receive even more attention now and when the additional phrase is presented to the Church in a more formal way.

Keepa’s angle on this story is, naturally, historical.

The Tribune article repeats what has become the accepted history of these three (now four) missions:

This mission first was coined by late LDS President Spencer W. Kimball in the 1980s and since then has been repeated as a mantra by the church’s more than 13 million members.

This dating of the statement refers to Pres. Spencer W. Kimball’s April 1981 conference address A Report of My Stewardship, wherein he said:

My brothers and sisters, as the Brethren of the First Presidency and the Twelve have meditated upon and prayed about the great latter-day work the Lord has given us to do, we are impressed that the mission of the Church is threefold:

• To proclaim the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people;

• To perfect the Saints by preparing them to receive the ordinances of the gospel and by instruction and discipline to gain exaltation;

• To redeem the dead by performing vicarious ordinances of the gospel for those who have lived on the earth.

All three are part of one work—to assist our Father in Heaven and His Son, Jesus Christ, in Their grand and glorious mission “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.”

This is not, however, the earliest delineation of those missions (Pres. Kimball did not claim they originated with him). The formulation of those missions goes back a full generation earlier, to the writing of Apostle John A. Widtsoe and his 1939 book Priesthood and Church Government (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1939), which was used as a priesthood quorum study text at various times. Widtsoe  declares (p. 152) that

[I]n all of its activities, a quorum of the Priesthood must keep in mind the threefold duty which rests upon the Church, namely:

To keep the members of the Church in the way of their full duty.

To teach the Gospel to those who have not yet heard it or accepted it.

To provide for the dead, through the ordinances of the temple, the means by which the dead, if obedient, may participate in the blessings that are enjoyed by those who have won citizenship in the Kingdom of God.

I have not traced the statement back beyond this point and do not know that it was original with Elder Widtsoe. Still, I think it is worthwhile to note that as a people we have recognized these divine assignments much longer than the early 1980s.



25 Comments »

  1. Interesting. I’d love to see if anyone has a similar quote from before Elder Widtsoe’s.

    Comment by Martin — December 10, 2009 @ 9:38 am

  2. This is a good change. I agree wit the Tribune reported who commented that this will do a better job of convince the world we’re truly Christian than simply enlarging the typeface of the words ‘Jesus Christ” in the corporate logo.

    Now the members (including me) need to just do a better job living up to it!

    Comment by Clark — December 10, 2009 @ 9:39 am

  3. Thanks, Ardis. This is great.

    Comment by David G. — December 10, 2009 @ 9:39 am

  4. Ardis: I read this news first on your wonderful site. This is truly a Merry Christmas. I love this news.

    Comment by S.Faux — December 10, 2009 @ 10:11 am

  5. Good find, Ardis. I’ve got Widstoe’s book at home, but I have to admit I haven’t opened it in a few years.

    As to the announcement, I think this is great. I know that I for one need more reminders about being charitable outside the church fold. I’ve done a little better this year with some friends with whom I play basketball at one of the local Boys & Girls Clubs. We each put in a certain amount, and then it gets matched or triple matched through the employer of one of my friends, so it multiplies the effort. in addition, we look for other opportunities to help, such as donating childrens swimming suits, or helping out in other ways.

    The big challenge, though, is that it is easy to give a few dollars here and there, when what is often really needed is donations of time, a commodity that for church members is often just as dear as cash. This change in the “purposes” of the church can help remind us that our time and attention is often more valuable than cash.

    Comment by kevinf — December 10, 2009 @ 10:30 am

  6. Widtsoe made a similar statement in his Program of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

    FWIW, R. Burton’s We Believe has a few other formulations of the church’s mission/purpose by J. Reuben Clark (1938), Joseph F. Smith (1907), and David O. McKay (1927) (pp. 108-109).

    Comment by Justin — December 10, 2009 @ 10:36 am

  7. […] new here, you may want to subscribe to my RSS feed. Thanks for visiting!Keepapitchinin looks at the history of the three-fold mission of the Church. It goes back much longer than I […]

    Pingback by The history of the three-fold mission of the Church | A Soft Answer — December 10, 2009 @ 11:03 am

  8. Ardis,
    I’ve been under the impression that the articulation of the threefold mission of the Church in the 1980s was linked somehow to decisions that were made about the Church divesting itself of interests that weren’t a “core” part of that mission: e.g., getting rid of the Church-owned hospitals. Is that correct? Or have I been mixing things that happened in roughly the same timeframe but didn’t have anything to do with each other?

    Comment by Jonathan Langford — December 10, 2009 @ 11:10 am

  9. Jonathan, I don’t recognize anything like that in the talks given by Pres. Kimball, or in their reiteration by Pres. Benson. That doesn’t mean the mission statement didn’t grow out of that context, just that I’m not aware of it.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 10, 2009 @ 11:37 am

  10. The incomparable Justin suggests several other statements regarding the mission of the Church.

    John A. Widtsoe, Program of the Church of Jesus Christ of latter-day Saints 4th ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1941)[the 4th ed. is the only one readily available to me], 121-122:

    The Threefold Obligation. The organized body of believers in the plan of salvation are under three heavy obligations. First, the Church must care for its members. All virtue begins at home. No organization transcends in usefulness the help it renders its members. Every member must be kept in the way to joy. It is moreover to be remembered that holding the members of the Church in faithful service is quite as important as winning new members. How many remain true? That is a more important question than, How many are you converting? The members of the church must receive constant, intelligent care.

    Second, the church must vigorously and incessantly spread the knowledge of the Gospel over the earth. It is God’s desire that all men be saved; the gospel is for every soul. The Church as the earthly agent of the Lord must, therefore, attempt with all its might to teach the Gospel to the nations of the earth, to seek out those who may become interested in the message, and to convert those who are touched in their souls by the truth of the gospel. Finding, teaching, converting, must be constant activities of the Church.

    Third, in consonance with the doctrine of universal salvation, the ordinances of earth must be performed for the dead, who have died without knowing or accepting the Gospel. The dead retain in the spirit world the normal powers of the individual, and may at their option accept the work done vicariously for them in the temples of the Lord, so that they may travel the path that leads to the Kingdom of God. To give the dead such opportunities is a heavy responsibility of the Church.

    These are three duties, carrying with them tremendous obligations, which require a perfected organization for their performance.

    The formulations noted in Rulon T. Burton, We Believe: Doctrines and Principles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City: Tabernacle Books, 1994, 108-109, note aspects of one or more of the Church’s missions, but none of them captures all three (interestingly, the statements by both J. Reuben Clark, Jr., and David O. McKay contain elements pertinent to the new, fourth purpose):

    J. Reuben Clark, Jr., Deseret News, Church Section, 13 August 1938:

    The mission of the church is first, to teach, encourage, assist, and protect the individual member in his striving to live the perfect life, temporally and spiritually, as laid down in the Gospel, — “Be ye perfect, even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect,” said the Master; secondly, the Church is to maintain, teach, encourage, and protect, temporally and spiritually, the membership as a group in its living of the gospel; thirdly, the Church is militantly to proclaim the truth, calling upon all men to repent, and to live in obedience to the Gospel, “for every knee must bow and every tongue confess.”

    [omits “redeem the dead”]

    Joseph F. Smith, Conference Report, April 1907, 4:

    We proclaim the objects of this organization to be, the preaching of the Gospel in all the world, the gathering of scattered Israel, and the preparation of a people for the coming of the Lord.

    [omits “redeem the dead”]

    David O. McKay, Conference Report, October 1927, 11:

    The mission of the Latter-day Saints may be considered in two great aspects; one, the proclamation to the world of the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ — the declaration to all mankind that God the Father and his son Jesus Christ appeared in this dispensation to the Prophet Joseph Smith. That in itself is a wonderful message.

    The other great purpose of the church is to translate truth into a better social order, or in other words, to make our religion effective in the individual lives of men, and in improving social conditions.

    [omits “redeem the dead”]

    Other sections of Burton’s compendium point to other early 20th century statements regarding missionary work and vicarious temple ordinances as being special missions of the Church, but I see in none of them any complete grouping of the three original (or four revised) purposes. So far, I think we can credit Widtsoe with the first relatively concise formulation of those assignments that can be met in this world only by the authority of the priesthood.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 10, 2009 @ 12:13 pm

  11. I had always thought that the three-fold mission of the Church originated in the 1980s. The first I ever heard of it was while I was on my mission. When the discussions were revised in the mid-1980s there was a section on the three-fold mission. Perhaps that is why we associate the three-fold mission to the 1980s–it was popularized then.

    RE: Comment 10, Statement by J.R. Clark: President Clark is forthright about the temporal aspects of the Church. No doubt this was due to the economic crisis of the 1930s and the recently established Church Welfare system. Maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised that during our current economic crisis the Church is emphasizing the new fourth mission of taking care of the poor and needy.

    Comment by Steve C. — December 10, 2009 @ 3:16 pm

  12. Thanks for this, Ardis; it definitely gives a broader perspective on the importance of this addition.

    Comment by Ben — December 10, 2009 @ 5:40 pm

  13. One of the things I liked about Pres. Kimball’s formulation of the 3-fold mission was that it reduced the feelings of guilt that some members had about not getting everything done. Previously, the tasks of preaching the gospel, or doing genealogy, or other callings, were perceived as discrete and separate obligations. And there was never enough time to do everything. But by Pres. Kimball’s saying that “all are part of one work”, the smaller categories were subsumed into a greater whole. And, IMO, spiritual stress was reduced.

    Comment by FMaxwell — December 10, 2009 @ 7:29 pm

  14. It has been explained to me that the three-fold mission of the Church is neatly presented in D&C 110:11-16 (http://scriptures.lds.org/en/dc/110/11-16#11).

    V. 11 – Missionary work
    v. 12 – Perfecting the saints
    v. 13-16 – Redeeming the dead

    Then we run out of verses or else I am sure it would read to help the poor and needy.

    Comment by Rick — December 10, 2009 @ 7:35 pm

  15. I think the three-fold mission is complete – The church is there for these great tasks assisting God (or being a main tool of God – Christ’s atonement being the ultimate means, though) in bringing eternal life and immortality to all.
    Caring for the needy and helpless while important, is not a main mission of the church. The Church should, however, do all it can to help in disasters and give to those in need – as it does through members fast and other offerings (but not tithing).
    Every member, however, is obligated to contribute to the welfare of fellowmen – also through fast offerings and thus through the Church.
    I feel fine if caring for the poor and the needy is one of the ‘purposes’ of the Church, but I wouldn’t call it a (scriptural) mission of the Church – until I hear it at the general conference.
    (A bit picky, I know)

    Comment by ranger — December 11, 2009 @ 7:39 am

  16. Re#15: “Pure religion and undefiled… is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction.” There’s also that “two great commandments” thing about loving thy neighbor.

    My view is that this new mission is like many other aspects of the Church that run informally for decades before being codified. Helping the poor is a principle as old as the gospel, and existed in this church from the beginning. The formal welfare program just gave it structure. Food storage is another example. I think this “new” mission is simply codifing an existing gospel truth. And it’s just as important as the other three. To paraphrase Paul (and Moroni), Charity is the greatest of all, and whoever has it at the last day “it shall be well with him”

    Comment by Clark — December 11, 2009 @ 9:26 am

  17. Of course, part of perfecting the saints has got to be getting us over being so selfish.

    Comment by Mark B. — December 11, 2009 @ 9:29 am

  18. Some things that really shouldn’t have to be explicit in an ideal world need to be explicit in the world in which we live.

    I’m glad to see this.

    Comment by Ray — December 11, 2009 @ 10:28 am

  19. I prefer not adding a fourth — welfare is part of perfecting the saints, even welfare to non-members, it seems to me — my fear is that we’ll add more for the flavor of the day, such as a mission to help people be healthy and active, a mission to remember the old folks, a mission to protect and nurture children, and so forth. Adding a fourth statement to an already unofficial statement doesn’t change anything in any meaningful way — unless, the Church is adopting the responsibility to care for all the world’s poor and needy as a provider of first instance — that would be very bold…

    Comment by ji — December 11, 2009 @ 10:44 am

  20. Wasn’t the original purpose of the Relief Society to “care for the world’s poor and needy as provider of first instance?”

    I remember reading something in the Ensign about Heber J. Grant meeting with Emmeline B. Wells and changing the focus of the RS to spiritual development. Somebody here must have this info at their fingertips… Anyway, if the change in mission statement indicates a change back to the original purpose, it truly would be, as ji notes, “very bold” indeed.

    Comment by Clark — December 11, 2009 @ 7:58 pm

  21. I think the three-fold mission is complete

    Caring for the needy and helpless while important, is not a main mission of the church.

    Apparently the Brethren disagree with you.

    my fear is that we’ll add more for the flavor of the day, such as a mission to help people be healthy and active, a mission to remember the old folks, a mission to protect and nurture children, and so forth.

    Isn’t one of the purposes of having a prophet to refocus our efforts toward the flavor need of the day?

    Comment by queuno — December 12, 2009 @ 10:20 am

  22. today on byutv the byu profs began their study of D&C sec 1&2. As I followed their research I picked something out in sec 110:11-16 that I feel correlates with the three fold mission of the lds church.
    1. In verse 11 Moses gives the keys for the gathering of Israel. That’s the proclaming of the gospel.

    2. In vs 12 Elias committs the blessing of gospel of Abraham. That’s perfecting the saints.

    3. In vs 13 Elijah keys of turning the hearts of fathers to children and children to fathers is the sealing power of redeeming the dead.

    Comment by Tricia hilliard — January 11, 2011 @ 9:03 pm

  23. Thanks for this addition, Tricia. Most corporate mission statements I’ve heard sound faddish and jargon-laden and are sometimes incomprehensible. That isn’t the case with this mission statement, especially when we see how consistently these three purposes — purposes that only the church can fill — have appeared in LDS thought.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 11, 2011 @ 10:20 pm

  24. Interesting that a comment should show up on this thread this morning–I just read an account of a funeral from 1952 in which the bishop, who was conducting the service, said:

    It has been said that we have three responsibilities, that of living the gospel and teaching it to our family, to preach it to others, and to redeem our dead. Brother L______ has fulfilled these requirements to a very fine degree.

    And, Elder Spencer W. Kimball was at that funeral. (Of course, he also sat with Elder Widtsoe in the Council of the Twelve.)

    Comment by Mark B. — January 12, 2011 @ 7:18 am

  25. Another terrific find! This must be from a family source?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 12, 2011 @ 7:55 am

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