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.