Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Tracking the Tracting

Tracking the Tracting

By: Ardis E. Parshall - February 21, 2013

A few months into my mission, we got a new mission president who had his own very strong ideas of the right way to do missionary work, a way that was very, very different from that of my first president. The English language classes we had been teaching were immediately discontinued. We were no longer permitted to speak to English or social studies classes in the schools, where our member teens invited us to answer questions about American life and sports and movies, and to explain why we were in France in the first place. Above these or any other techniques of meeting people, tracting was promoted as the way to find investigators.

After reading recently some of B.H. Roberts’ writing on the art of tracting, I have a somewhat better appreciation of it as a missionary activity, although I still suspect its day as an effective activity has long passed. But our mission president really believed in it, and directed us to spend the lion’s share of our proselyting hours knocking on doors.

He had a preferred method for recording our progress, too – not in the numbers of discussions that resulted, but in the ground covered. Following his directions, our district leader took a map of the city and cut it up into little pieces along the major roads. Each piece was pasted onto the first page of a pocket notebook. As we tracted, we were to record in that notebook every address, every apartment number, and the response we received. We were also to use a red pencil to color in the side of each street as we worked it. The notebooks were supposed to be kept by the district leader, so that the next time missionaries tracted the area they would know what had happened earlier.

Just getting the notebooks ready was a heckuva lot of work. Recording responses was even more work. I suspect that anybody watching us stop to write in our notebooks after we had just knocked on a door and been told “No, thank you, I’m not Catholic” or “No! I have to feed the cat!” would have thought we were spies of some kind. It didn’t help our door approaches, either, because we were more focused on the almost inevitable refusal than on sincerely, earnestly seeking to start a gospel conversation.

The system didn’t last long – we only had to do that in a single city; by the time I was transferred the next month, that system had already gone out of use in my new city.

I didn’t know, but assumed it was a system dreamed up by my mission president.

But guess what? I recently came across the papers of a missionary who served in the Eastern States Mission during World War I. Those papers included a pocket notebook … with a city neighborhood indicated … and an indication of the response he had received at each door … and a key to interpret the notations …




My president, who had served his own mission on the eve of World War II, had learned this system that descended from an even earlier day!

And the best part of it, as far as I’m concerned, is that you’re looking at the only page in his notebook where the elder of 1918 bothered to record the responses – the rest of the notebook is completely blank.

He may have found it as cumbersome in a small town in New York as we did in one of the largest cities of France.



  1. In the last decade I can recall several major programs that were introduced to in my ward, The gift of family history, taking our friends on tours of the chapel, etc, etc. Each one was guaranteed to work because in Seattle/Missouri/Florida it had skyrocketed baptisms. Each one was laid out as the new law of the land and everyone had to get on board. Each one died a quiet and quick death.

    We really have almost no control over missionary “success” if we define success as people getting baptized. I’m convinced that programs like your mission president’s or the ones I mention flourish in missionary work because it gives us the illusion of control.

    Comment by KLC — February 21, 2013 @ 8:19 am

  2. There were times on my mission (1991-93) when we took careful notes of our tracting efforts, too. (I assume this was a common thing worldwide.) I think in the back of our minds we were making the effort to help “the next” elders transferred to the area. While we tried to be careful, we never came up with such a detailed key of responses as this 1918 notebook. I, too, wondered what observers in the apartment complexes thought of us knocking on doors and then promptly sketching away in our notebooks. Yikes! Ah, the lovely neuroticisms of missionary work!

    Comment by David Y. — February 21, 2013 @ 8:57 am

  3. Where are the codes for “Cursed us” or “Threatened with bodily harm” or “Cracked stupid polygamy joke”?

    Comment by Mark B. — February 21, 2013 @ 9:49 am

  4. In my Mission (Spain 71-73) we did the very thing you talked about. We kept records (books)of every block in our area with map, dates and results. We used these everytime we went out and some had several dates in them and we would followup on any that might be interesting. I guess the believe was not to re-plow old ground or that all would be judged of the books or life or something. It was a very laborious process. Only good thing out of it was marking time when your comp was sick and you had to stay awake and do something to move the work on. We also marked BOMs.

    Comment by Mex — February 21, 2013 @ 10:35 am

  5. I was blessed to have the same President throughout my mission time although our methods changed 180 degrees – for the better. Because there had been a lot of goofing off in our mission (before I got there) my first mission conference within weeks of arriving was President (Brazil Area President) James E. Faust and our Mission President laying down the law. In the immortal words of Pres. Faust, oft repeated in his wonderfully accented Portuguese, “Vocês não vieram aqui para comer bichinhos, nem banana com casca!”

    Anyway, our President told us to stop fooling around in members houses and go out and “bater portas” literally, “hit doors” knocking or tracting – although with no specific system.

    After a few months, when that didn’t prove so effective, we were directed to spend time with members, especially less actives, and as we helped reactivate them to connect with their non-member family and neighbors to bring them along. And we had much better success.

    Comment by Grant — February 21, 2013 @ 10:45 am

  6. I should have said “imitated” rather then “repeated” with regard to Pres. Faust’s words. There was quite a cottage industry of Pres. Faust impressions going around. And I think it helped us with a little humor and great love for that man.

    Oh, and Brazil (76-78)

    Comment by Grant — February 21, 2013 @ 10:47 am

  7. I would love to find a tracting record of that kind for 19th century Tennessee. But I am sure it does not exist. I will just have to be satisfied with the occasional journal which described the people they met. Not just their reaction to being approached at home, but also their names and the homes they lived in. The food they were given, if they were fortunate. All the messy interactions with unhappy relatives, anxious constables, and angry strangers. The official reporting was a bit drier, distilled down to “entertainments refused” or “miles walked”. Missionary work is so much more interesting than that.

    These kind of systems always seemed to me to be more about verifying that the missionaries were actually working, even if the individual mission presidents implementing them lost sight of that. As missionaries got younger (and less disciplined?), the systems got more elaborate. But then perhaps the relationship between the two is spurious.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — February 21, 2013 @ 12:30 pm

  8. @Grant in #5 Translation please? (Keepa’s spam filter is already full of translations like “Brethren, we did not come here to eat pets or banana peels”)

    Comment by The Other Clark — February 21, 2013 @ 2:21 pm

  9. I think the emphasis on tracting varies based on whether leaders feel the primary purpose is (a) convert baptisms or (b)voice of warning. In many times and places (like Elder Jones’ Texas mission) the emphasis has been far more on proclaiming the gospel to every living soul, rather than working carefully with the few that showed interest and helping them gain a firm testimony of the Gospel leading to baptism.

    And yes, tracting is hopelessly outdated. The same forces that led to the 3-hour block in 1980 (differing worldwide cultures, working moms, busy schedules) should have also prompted a change in finding efforts, but it didn’t. (And does anyone actually hand out tracts anymore when they tract?)

    Comment by The Other Clark — February 21, 2013 @ 2:28 pm

  10. Hey, Other Clark! That was pretty good whatever translation mechanism you were using. It was actually “little animals” rather than “pets” and “bananas with the peel on” rather than just the peels. Apparently (and I never saw this) some Elders were having frog swallowing contests. I’m still not sure how they were swallowing unpeeled bananas, but there are some small, sweet varieties.

    But we’re hijacking from tracting records to missionary pranks.

    Back to Brazil. I have a few of my old plannng books that have some street names and contacts, but not in any systematized way. I’m a map lover. So whenever I came into a new city and had any leadership responsibility, I would go down to city hall and buy a map we would post on the wall and mark with colored pins where the members lived and our investigators in various stages. I have a picture of one of them for Livramento, RS. but I’d have to transfer it from a slide.

    Comment by Grant — February 21, 2013 @ 2:46 pm

  11. We did something kind of like this. Our president decreed that we should visit each house four times. The first “visit” was a small introductory flyer in the mailbox, followed by visits in person. We’d keep scribbled notes of who was home and who said what to us so we’d know what approach to take on subsequent visits (but didn’t save any detailed records once we were done with a neighborhood). We’d try to hit the neighborhoods at different times on our four passes through to have a better likelihood of actually finding someone home.

    And does anyone actually hand out tracts anymore when they tract?

    We did this, too. All the Church-produced pamphlets at the time assumed a Christian background and familiarity with the Bible, and thus were wildly un-useful for Japan. A clever, entrepreneurial elder in our mission realized this and took the initiative to write his own (with much input from the local branch). At first we ran off photocopies, but as it gained popularity we made a master and took it to a printer and had a boatload printed (about 24,000 in the initial printing, if I remember right, and tens of thousands more later).

    Besides being a more basic introduction to the Gospel than anything else we had, the “Thompson pamphlet” was also perfect for the four-pass tracting method; when people expressed disinterest, we could give them a pamphlet and ask them to read it, thus getting some information into their hands as well as providing a reason to stop by again and ask if they’d read it and what they thought. I called it “the 1.8-yen excuse to go back.” :)

    Comment by lindberg — February 21, 2013 @ 3:09 pm

  12. @10 The translation mechanism used was rusty mission Spanish.

    Comment by The Other Clark — February 21, 2013 @ 3:12 pm

  13. In my mission (NYC ’78-’80) we had printed 3×5 tracting cards. There were spaces on the top for date, street, missionaries, etc., and a place on the right side to list the house numbers of those not home. Those not interested just got a hash mark across the bottom so we could report the number contacted. On the left was a place to list more successful contacts, e.g.:

    “132 L CB pm” (house #32 lady said call back in the afternoon)

    “230 C – Johnsons CB Sat 1pm” (house 230, taught C discussion to Johnsons return appt Saturday at 1)

    “338 ICB M WIA” (house 338: man – insincere call-back “when in area”)

    “ICB” meant someone someone told us to come back because they wanted to get rid of us, and “come back another time” was first stupid thing that popped into their head. Usually they didn’t even realize what they’d said. I never bothered recording an ICB; they always got really mad if we showed up again a week later.

    The idea of recording not-homes was that we could go back and try later. But hey, this was New York City and suburbs. We never ran out of untracted streets. I think maybe I remember once or twice there was some bizarre circumstances that led us to tract the not-homes on a street we’d already done.

    Whenever we finished tracting, we colored in the street on the big map in the apartment. I had one companion who for reasons incomprehensible, was always wanting to throw out the tracting map and start over with a new one. Gee whiz, we’ve got 12,340 doors we haven’t knocked on yet; why would we want to start going back to where we’ve already been?

    Comment by Left Field — February 21, 2013 @ 7:38 pm

  14. In Brazil in the mid-60’s, I found tracting helpful for something to do while focusing on receiving inspiration to do something more effective – go to a particular house, speak with a person on the street, etc. In the meantime, it helped one to avoid fretting and/or wasting time.

    Comment by Stephen Taylor — February 21, 2013 @ 10:13 pm

  15. “ICB.” That’s interesting, Left Field. We didn’t use that terminology, but when a companion and I tried tracking doors one time, we went back to a house where no one had answered and the woman came to the door and plaintively said, “But you were just here.”

    We didn’t reply that if she’d answered the door the first time and told us she wasn’t interested, we wouldn’t have come back, but that experience was enough to convince us just to tract in a different neighborhood.

    In a couple of areas on my mission, the Jehovah’s Witnesses would chalk tracting codes somewhere near the door of each house they visited. We got to understand a number of the codes, but the only one I can remember right now is the spiral for Muslims.

    Comment by Amy T — February 22, 2013 @ 8:50 am

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