Book Review: Early Mormon Missionary Activities in Japan, 1901-1924 by Reid Neilson

By August 17, 2011

Neilson, Reid L. Early Mormon Missionary Activities in Japan, 1901-1924. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2010

Dr. Reid L. Neilson, managing director of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ history department, has written a fascinating account of the Mormon Japanese Mission at the turn of the 20th century. Neilson argues that the 19th century LDS missionary experience in the United States and Europe had calcified Mormon evangelizing strategies to a degree that ultimately determined their failure in the rapidly modernizing Japanese nation. While Neilson’s trajectory often wades a little shallow and missionary-centric, his transnational gaze at Mormon mission policy and practice, while situating his study in a comparative Christian missionary framework, offers important inroads for scholars of Mormon history who have too often found themselves mired in the nineteenth century American origins story of a 21st century global church.

Neilson begins his book by exploring Mormon mappings of Asian religions even before missionary work began in the Far East. He first recounts the changing Mormon understandings about Asian religions and their moral similarities with revealed Mormon teachings. According to Neilson, Mormon leaders first explained these congruities based on the “light and spirit of Christ”–a scriptural term referring to the spiritual revelation of truth to all peoples searching for spiritual patterns of ethical behavior. Neilson argues that this perception changed after leaders visited the 1893 Parliament of Religions and came to understand how Asian religious ethics predated Christianity. Mormon leaders then reframed their understandings of these Eastern religions ethical codes by coming to see them as remnants of the universal truths revealed to Adam and Eve and the ancient patriarchs.

Neilson continues his book by describing Mormon interactions with Asian peoples in the years leading up to the establishment of the Japanese mission. Mormons’ encounters with Asian peoples were framed both by historical interactions between the United States and Asia as well as Mormon racial theology.  Neilson argues that Mormon understandings of lineage-based racial identities helped set proselytizing priorities. Consequently, peoples perceived as belonging to the House of Israel, especially those Europeans thought to be part of the tribe of Ephraim, were given first priority. Encounters with Asians in the 19th century were filtered through this genealogically-defined racial tableau, and Neilson argues that church leaders and members struggled to categorize Asians within this system until well into the twentieth century. Thus, while millenarian Mormon thought sent American missionaries briefly to East and South Asia in the 1850s and the famed Japanese Iwakura diplomatic mission passed through Utah in 1872, Asia and its peoples remained largely outside the Mormon Church’s missionary efforts. Even the Chinese and Japanese immigrants that passed through or settled in Utah were largely ignored as potential converts. Although some leaders such as George Q. Cannon found themselves enamored by the idea of large-scale Asian missionary work and Asian American workers in Utah served as constant reminders of their countries’ unharvested status, it was only in the 20th century that changing Mormon proselyting priorities led to the commitment of missionaries to Japan on a more permanent basis.

Perhaps one of the most important contributions of Neilson’s book involves the efforts he makes to compare LDS and other Christian models of missionary work. He points out that professional Christian missionaries often studied for years in preparation for their Asian missions. They came from varied social backgrounds and often combined their evangelizing efforts with educational and reformist endeavors. To use Neilson’s terms, they introduced Western culture and education with the Christian message (89). In contrast, Mormon missionaries came into the field with little significant language or proselytizing training. Their evangelizing efforts were driven by Christ-centered theological discussions, and they traveled without purse or script. While the general non-Western orientation of professional Christian missionaries led them to adapt their messages for an Asian audience, the traditional Mormon focus on Europeans and other Christians left them with much less adaptive experience.

Neilson ultimately argues that it was the unbending nature of this Euro-American Mormon Missionary Model that doomed the Church’s efforts  in the Early Japanese Mission. Formed originally under Heber J. Grant’s onsite leadership in 1901, missionaries struggled with the Japanese language, culture, and cost of living. Neilson argues that the Japanese Mission was the least successful mission in the church because its leaders and missionaries struggled to adapt Mormon missionary strategies and tactics to their Japanese audience. Missionary practices such as personal contacting, tracting, and conducting street meetings proved less effective among the Japanese people because of language barriers and cultural constrictions. Past chroniclers have latched onto various reasons for the closure of the Japan mission such as the 1923 Tokyo-Yokohama earthquake, declining U.S.-Japan diplomatic relations caused by U.S. immigration policy, and revelatory insight about the forth-coming horrors of World War II. Instead, Neilson strongly makes the case that it was the mission’s poor conversion results relative to those of other Christian missionaries in the country as well as Mormon missionaries in other places that ultimately doomed the country’s Mormon mission.  In his epilogue, Neilson frames this closure as a temporary setback to Mormon missionary efforts in Japan. Pedagogical and methodological innovations to the Church’s general missionary program in the years after World War II enabled subsequent Asian missionary successes.

Neilson’s monograph offers important insights to readers interested in a variety of historical fields. For scholars of religion interested in mission history, Neilson’s book offers insight on the particularities of Mormon missionary work. He ably explains the motivations and methods involved in Mormon evangelistic endeavors and offers a case study of this model’s successes and failures in turn of the century Japan. Nevertheless, its institutional and missionary-centric focus at times muffles the voices of the Japanese people who either chose to accept or reject the missionaries’ teachings. While Neilson focuses extensively on the missionary-centric problems of translation, his discussion of the problems of reception leaves much of the story untold. Although Neilson has commendably scrutinized a variety of Japanese sources, very few of them come from the perspective of the Japanese people themselves. It seems that the social and cultural characteristics of Meiji and Taisho Japan that predisposed the Japanese to ignore or reject the missionaries’ message constitute an under-developed part of the story. While immigration disputes and natural disasters might not have been the determining institutional factors for ending the Japan mission in 1924, dynamic political, diplomatic, social, cultural, and economic factors certainly affected the ways that Japanese people evaluated the Mormon missionary message and affected the success of those missionaries. Grand historical transformations in Japanese society caused by more than a decade of war might have played as important a role in post-war missionary successes as changes in the Mormon missionary model.

Despite this criticism, Neilson’s work offers profound insights for scholars of Mormon history. His book examines the Church in the understudied years of the early twentieth century which, Kathleen Flake has argued, represented its transition from an un-American to American institution. Even more importantly, Neilson follows one of the key figures of this modernizing transformation, Heber J. Grant, in his attempts to spread the Mormon faith throughout the world. The Japan mission, in Neilson’s hands, becomes a key site where the globalizing vision of the church came into conflict with its 19th century doctrines and practices in a way similar to, as described by Flake, Reed Smoot’s Senate hearing. Neilson’s work historicizes the budding transnational scope of 20th century Mormon missionary work without resorting to teleology, and consequently provides a model for other Mormon historians to explore the work of Mormon missionaries around the globe. (1)

Although Neilson’s work is ultimately about Mormon missionaries and their institutional leaders, his dedication to placing his story in a comparative framework offers important contextual guidance and wider historical relevancy for readers.  Neilson’s work joins the growing body of Mormon scholarship that seeks to situate Mormon and Utah history within larger historical frameworks. (2) Neilson rightfully demonstrates that Mormon missionary work in Asia and beyond constructed itself both in opposition to and within the long traditions of Christian evangelism and the Orientalism, imperialism, altruism, and racism involved therein. The story of the global expansion of Mormon missionary work and membership in the 20th century remains largely untold–especially by trained historians. One can only hope that Neilson’s work prefaces more emerging scholarship on the global expansion of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and how such growth compares with the work of other churches around the world.

(1)Flake, Kathleen, The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2004)

(2) The list of such works is growing so rapidly that I choose not to try and compile a list, but I will point out that many of the bloggers at JI and their colleagues are committed to this model of scholarship.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Miscellaneous


  1. Thanks for the review, Joel. This is still on my list of books to read, and I’m now more excited about getting to it.

    Comment by Christopher — August 17, 2011 @ 9:58 pm

  2. Excellent review, Joel. I’ve been meaning to read this book, and now I feel even more encouraged.

    Comment by Ben Park — August 18, 2011 @ 8:58 am

  3. Very interesting, Joel. It seems to me that while we are used to narratives that challenge providential readings of events during the nineteenth century, we don’t have a lot challenging providential readings of the twentieth century. The analysis of the failed mission would seem to have a tremendous value to not only students of history, but also agents within the institutional church.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 18, 2011 @ 11:01 am

  4. J.,

    I think Neilson is indeed challenging the providential narrative that argues the Japan mission was closed based on prophetic insight. He even states that Grant admitted struggling with revelation regarding the mission’s development. On the other hand, his epilogue makes it sound like the Church overcame the shortcomings of 19th century missionary work in order to foster the Asian success the Church enjoys today. So there is a certain sense of institutional and spiritual progression built into the narrative–this can also be seen in Neilson’s 2002 article for the Ensign. Nevertheless, this is a very solid piece of scholarship. I am sad that it wasn’t picked up by a bigger academic press that would have pressed Neilson further, but I feel like this is an incredibly positive offering from someone that now works in the Church History Department.

    Comment by Joel — August 18, 2011 @ 12:04 pm

  5. Joel, thank you very much for this great review. I just bumped this up on my list of things I need to read soon.

    Comment by Jared T — August 19, 2011 @ 4:41 am

  6. Thanks, Joel. I’m glad we have someone with your expertise to review this book.

    Comment by David G. — August 19, 2011 @ 7:35 am


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