Ben E. Rich (son of pioneering apostle Charles C. Rich) spent most of his adult life as a missionary, serving as an elder in the British Mission in the 1880s, as president of the Southern States Mission from 1898 to 1908 (with two years in the middle of that as president of the short-lived Middle States Mission) and as president of the Eastern States Mission from 1908 to his untimely death in 1913. In other words, he had seen a lot of missionaries and mission styles.
In 1909 he wrote to his elders in the Eastern States advising them against a preaching style that had been a problem at least since the 1840s when Thomas Margetts counseled against the same practice: the habit of tearing down other religious beliefs, instead of building up the truth.
A hundred years on, it’s still at least an occasional problem, in Sunday Schools, online, and in other venues where we ought to be building up rather than tearing down – especially in a generation when, unlike Ben E. Rich’s day, those we seek to reach are more often unbelievers in any religion than believers in Christianity.
New York, July 12, 1909
To the Elders:
These few lines are important and should be indelibly impressed upon the tablets of your hearts. Word reaches us that the privilege of preaching upon the streets, of one of the cities, has been withdrawn on account of the radical way in which one of our elders attacked the different churches.
The elders have not been sent out to do this. “Contend with no man on account of his religion” is the commandment given to us in our Missionary work. Pull the roof of no man’s religious house from over his head. Preach the Gospel, and preach it in a pleasing and pleasant manner. He who tears down another man’s religious structure, and spends his time in this kind of work, is not performing an honorable mission.
Point out to the people the beauties of the Gospel as revealed from the heavens in our day, and you will do better work than by belching out a tirade of abuse against other churches.
Do you know what other churches have done for the gospel? Let me tell you some of the things. They have given tot he world the bible, containing the word of God; they have converted a great many of the people of the earth to a belief that Jesus is the Christ, and were it not for the noble work they have done, we would today be preaching to heathens instead of people who pretend to believe the gospel. Ministers in these churches are doing better work than the elder who spends his entire time ranting and abusing the different churches upon the earth.
One of our Articles of Faith says: “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where or what they may.” If the elders believe in this Article of Faith, then let them remember that faith without works is dead, being alone. the Prophet Joseph told us to preach the Gospel; nowhere does he tell us to pull other churches down, and the elder who spends his time in doing as the Prophet Joseph counseled missionaries to do, will be fulfilling an honorable mission.
I am sending this to all the elders, because I do not desire to pick out a few of them, but I thank God that only a small number of the elders need this counsel. To the small number who do need it, I want them to swallow it in quart doses about six times a day, and let other churches alone.
God bless you in your Ministry, is the prayer of your
BEN E. RICH