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.