What Did You Read on Your Mission?

By August 20, 2014

Ben S.’s post at Times and Seasons about expanding the missionary library and the subsequent discussion made me wonder what other missions were like in terms of what kinds of texts were available.  I ask because there wasn’t a whole lot available in my mission beyond the mission library.  The Work and the Glory  was somewhat popular but even that was eventually discouraged by the mission president.  I heard about Nibley but I wasn’t aware of any missionaries reading him.  Some Skousen made the rounds (tapes and books).  Extra reading material seemed to consist of Mormon Doctrine and Lectures on Faith and a few pamphlets.  Those who wanted to do extra study would study that stuff.  To make it through Talmage was considered a bit of a feat.  Truman Madsen’s Joseph Smith lectures didn’t even circulate on my mission.

I did like to study but focussed on the scripture and Talmage.  I wasn’t too impressed with the Skousen that I got ahold of and I developed the opinion that a lot of the “extra” stuff was problematic (I viewed McConkie in the same light).  My favorite area in terms of reading was my last.  The missionaries had converted a Jehovah’s Witness and he gave them his library of stuff, about 10 books.  I really liked learning about other religions, so that was fun.  Also in that area, we tracked into a Muslim who gave us a book explaining Islam.  I really liked that.  Other than some books my folks sent me for refuting anti-Mormon augments, not much else.

So what did you read on your mission and what was the culture like for passing around texts?  What kinds of texts circulated?  If you read a lot of extra stuff, how did you get a hold of it?

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Aside from the missionary library books, there was a copy of Les Miserables which I may or may not have read. Didn’t some apostle once say it was the closest thing to being scripture without actually being scripture.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — August 20, 2014 @ 1:05 pm

  2. Interesting post, thanks. I chuckled at the part about a complete Talmage reading being considered a feat. 🙂 I worked through a bit of Jesus the Christ, only to return to BYU and hear an adjunct religion professor tell us “there is a reason the Church no longer puts much weight behind those books” or something like that. Wish I could remember what he said, and I know I wasn’t the only one who went “oh”.

    At the beginning of my mission, my favorite book was this really thin blue one with clouds on the cover (can’t remember the title) that some of us had brought along because it seemed to promise hundreds of baptisms per-missionary and great miracles. I never let go of that thing, and it’d be the first one I’d throw away if I went back today! Too much pressure, not enough practical insights.

    Another book I brought along was a little “missionary companion” book of quotes. I got a lot of mileage out of that book, used it for preparing training, and the more inspiring quotes really helped lift me up at times.

    Also when I was out in the field, the Church released the Brigham Young manual, and that was really helpful to read. I was glad to have that extra resource.

    Beyond that: Since I was serving in Japan, I grabbed every Japanese reference book I could find. I had a complete set of grammar books, “How to Sound Intelligent in Japanese,” various kanji guides, a book that discussed formal honorific language, and of course many LDS publications in Japanese.

    We did receive some religious texts, most commonly JW tracts, which we might start reading out of curiosity or apologetic fervor, but we never seemed to have much time for that. I liked to collect new & interesting Ufologist religious tracts, and I would take photos of Aum shinrikyo sect “wanted” posters & signs at train stations (they had carried out a terroristic sarin gas poisoning years earlier and some were still on the lam, wanted by police).

    Comment by Marc — August 20, 2014 @ 1:55 pm

  3. Since I was serving in Taiwan, the mission president told us that reading books about Chinese culture would be okay, figuring that such knowledge would make us better missionaries. And that was a loophole big enough to drive a truck through. I mail-ordered English-language books on Chinese history, philosophy, and literature from Taipei, and it changed my life. Indeed, I now teach Chinese history at a university in North Carolina. Thank you, thank you, President Miner!

    Comment by Grant Hardy — August 20, 2014 @ 4:02 pm

  4. Bruce, sounds like a good selection. And in terms of things that may not have been approved, I did read the newspaper from time to time.

    Marc, yeah, a lot of the missionaries complained that Talmage was too hard, so some would like to point out that they were reading him as a mark of distinction. And yeah, the missionary pal was pretty common in my mission too.

    Grant, sounds like a really good deal. Out missions certainly left their imprint.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 20, 2014 @ 4:14 pm

  5. There were a lot of old L’Étoile magazines kicking around, and I remember finding the volumes of Joseph Fielding Smith’s Doctrines du salut. An investigator gave me L’Énigme sacrée, so I knew about all that Da Vinci Code stuff way in advance. I also picked up a bunch of 25¢ Larousse classiques or other livres de poche, such as Racine’s Brittanicus and Andromaque or the poetry of Alfred de Vigny. Also, most of the Tintin books.

    Comment by Bill — August 20, 2014 @ 4:18 pm

  6. In ’82-’83, we were limited to Standard Works, Jesus the Christ, the Articles of Faith, and Marvelous Work and a Wonder. Like Bill, I devoured the old Etoiles. And maybe like Bruce, I did actually read Les Miserables, calling it language study. “Language study” also got me through the complex Asterix collection.

    I knew I was stretching the rules to read Les Miserables, and felt mildly guilty about it — but I read it during the month I was with a companion whose father had just died, and she didn’t get out of bed all month long. Couldn’t do any work, had to do something.

    Newspapers and magazines were explicitly forbidden. The only deliberate act of rebellion during my mission was the decision to ignore that rule and read the English European edition of Time Magazine. My mother had sent me a few clippings about Barney Clark, the LDS artificial heart recipient, which helped me deflect some criticism about Mormonism that confused us with the Jehovah’s Witnesses and their stand on medicine. I decided I couldn’t afford NOT to be at least generally aware of what was going on in the world Even so, I felt really bad about my defiance in reading Time against the Prez’s direct order. Now, it’s my feeling bad that makes me feel bad.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — August 20, 2014 @ 4:37 pm

  7. In my last city, a priest gave me the whole book collection of another priest who had entered an ascetic order and who was taking his ascetic order more seriously than I was taking mine. It was quite the treasure. I got lots of things,but only had time to read Victor Hugo (Quatre-Vingt Treize), Zola (Germinale –finished on plane home, it is about the making of a socialist prophetlike leader during an intense miner’s strike) and Bernanos (Journal of a Country Priest), which had a very ambiguous missionary work conversion scene that really stuck with me. I also collected some Muslim apologetic literature, which included some familiar takes on polygamy.

    Comment by Paul 2 — August 20, 2014 @ 4:40 pm

  8. Oh, yeah. I also read JW magazines to use their illustrations for post cards that I sent to my friends.

    Comment by Paul 2 — August 20, 2014 @ 4:42 pm

  9. The standard operating procedure in my mission (01-03) was that once you got through the standard works and the mission library (the standard 5 Ben talked about) at least once, you could ask the mission pres and he would okay reading lots of other things on a person by person basis, mostly things that would increase language fluency. So we had missionaries who would pick up Tolkien in translation, or other works of lit, etc. I also opted for Harry Potter (read one or two of them). The parents and grandparents would also send all kinds of other stuff, mostly books written by GAs – so I read a bunch of Maxwell, Holland, Eyring, etc. Never got those “officially” cleared, never thought I even needed to ask. Never felt guilty for it…

    There was also a lot of Nibley floating around, as well as things you could get from the office – like the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, etc.

    Comment by Andrew S. — August 20, 2014 @ 4:50 pm

  10. I subscribed to and read Sunstone and Dialogue all through my mission, all approved by the president personally. Also read a lot of Nibley, plus the occasional Deseret Book GA stuff.

    Comment by Dallas — August 20, 2014 @ 6:23 pm

  11. I read biographies of the Presidents of the Church. Hinckley, Hunter, Benson, Kimball and Lee. They were easy to borrow from meetinghouse libraries. I also read through the standard missionary library and a bunch of other stuff by Apostles (Holland, Eyring, Nelson, McConkie, etc.).

    Comment by Josh — August 20, 2014 @ 6:25 pm

  12. Great idea for a post! I served in Colorado, 77-79. I honestly don’t remember a rule limiting our reading. The culture in my mission was more centered on collecting cassette tapes of talks than reading, but I was a reader, and by the end of my mission I had a large trunk of books that I schlepped around on transfers.

    My first focus was on memorizing the discussions. (Back then we were supposed to know them 95% word perfect, and the 75+ discussion scriptures 100% word perfect). Then I focused on the scriptures, which would remain a focus for the entire two years. Then I did the then missionary library (JtC, AoF, TotPJS, DoBY, GD, DoSalvation, maybe one or two others I’m forgetting, to which I added MWW). That lasted me about a month.

    Every apartment had large, dusty stacks of old Ensign magazines, and I went through those systematically. That was an education in itself; the old Ensigns were much more meaty than what we get now.

    I discovered Nibley on my mission, and had Since Cumorah, An Approach to the BoM and Message of the JS Papyri, and some tapes. I also bought some scholarly books, including translations of the DSS, and works on Ebla, Elephantine and other ancient document caches.

    One apartment had The Story of the Latter-day Saints on top of the fridge, so I read that.

    I was inspired by a C. Wilfred Griggs Know Your Religion fireside to learn biblical languages. So I bought a Strong’s Concordance, an interlinear NT, and a Berlitz Hebrew reader. (As fate would have it I would study both Greek and Hebrew academically later at BYU.)

    I also collected anti-Mormon literature. I purchased Mormonism: Shadow or Reality from a Christian bookstore; the rest I just collected, ending up with a thick manilla folder full of the stuff.

    For me the wide reading definitely was a good thing, and I support Ben’s post.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — August 20, 2014 @ 7:27 pm

  13. Besides the Missionary Library, I had half a dozen mormon classics (Mormon Doctrine, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Gospel Doctrine by Joseph F. Smith, Talmage’s Great Apostasy, LoF), several Nibley volumes on the Book of Mormon, Temple, and early Christianity, a dozen FARMS books (mostly on the Book of Mormon, LDS history, and apologetics), Hinckley’s biography, several things like Robinson’s Believing Christ and Following Christ,
    a variety of language/grammar books (French, Spanish, Mandarin, Greek), all the Institute manuals/commentaries, and a few weird ones, like “Combatting Organic Evolution Through the Book of Mormon.” Traded a Nibley to a local for that one. Not a good trade, looking back.

    I heard Skousen’s Atonement-theory talk, and a good number of tapes from, uh, that cheerful LDS guy, dentist who made lots of quasi-doctrinal tapes.

    Lots of missionaries carried around a three-ring binder with photocopies of stuff. Lots of it was crap, occasionally some good stuff- old talks, talks with questionable provenance, etc. like Mark E. Peterson’s “letter” about JW doctrine.

    I mostly filled mine with photocopies from old Church magazines found in Church libraries. I was surprised to find any at all, given the European location, but found stacks and stacks, going back decades.

    I also got a copy of a JW Bible in English. (We went to a JW service/training meeting once in Belgium, which was very interesting.)

    Several traditional Mormon books circulated, like Drawing on the Powers of Heaven and others by Grant von Harrison. I wasn’t a fan.

    Like Kevin, I also tried to collect whatever explicit “antimormon” material could be found, which wasn’t much. A Jack Chick tract or two, I think.

    I can’t remember reading any fiction, French or otherwise, nor finding any in any apartments or stashes.

    I assume you’ve read the story about my second mission president granting me permission to keep reading; I don’t how he modified the policy for other missionaries.

    Comment by Ben S — August 20, 2014 @ 8:26 pm

  14. We were required to read two books: How to Win Friends and Influence People (which I did indeed read), and Alvin Dyer’s The Challenge. The mission office was out of the latter title when I first came through, and so I didn’t buy one and never read. (I dodged a bullet with that one.)

    Comment by Kevin Barney — August 20, 2014 @ 8:52 pm

  15. I read Sholem Asch’s books The Apostle and The Nazerene. I ended up rereading both out of desperation. Good times. I’d highly recommend both, by he way. I learned a lot about the Jewish Jesus, which Talmage”s book just doesn’t cover.

    Comment by Alex — August 20, 2014 @ 11:45 pm

  16. Quite the range of experiences and, Kevin and Ben, it sounds like you guys got quite the education. Again, we just didn’t seem to have that kind of access.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 21, 2014 @ 8:35 am

  17. Let’s see. Mid 90s. I had the official missionary library and a variety of grammars.

    There didn’t tend to be books left in our apartments, although in my first two apartments there were a few old magazines and tracts.

    I enjoyed reading the scriptures in German; still sometimes prefer them to English. I was making my way through the apocrypha when the direction came from the mission president that we were to read nothing but the Book of Mormon until we had all the discussions memorized word for word. Since we almost never taught anything but the first discussion, I had no desire to memorize the remaining discussions (4-6), so I read only the Book of Mormon for the last six or eight months of my mission.

    Oh, fairly early on my mission, a companion had accepted a book from a friendly contact and had promised to read it, only to find that it was an anti-Mormon text. Her German wasn’t very good, so I told her I’d read it in her behalf. It was mediocre, a dated criticism of Joseph Smith and the witnesses to the Book of Mormon, Spaulding theory, etc. Can’t say it benefitted my life in any way.

    Comment by Amy T — August 21, 2014 @ 9:52 am

  18. Steve, I ordered all my books through the mission office. Even though I was in France, I had my American checkbook linked to an account from money earned in high school, and I think I just sent a check to the office with the orders, and a month or two later at Zone conference, I’d have a package.

    In retrospect, I have no idea how that worked.

    Comment by Ben S — August 21, 2014 @ 9:58 am

  19. That’s awesome, Ben. I’ve never heard of such of thing. What did the other missionaries think of you personal library?

    Amy, we had a certain order of reading we were supposed to follow also. I remember a companion telling me that I was not to ready any more Talmage until I got particular parts of the check list done. We didn’t get along.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 21, 2014 @ 10:03 am

  20. Wow. It seems that just about everyone had 1) more reading material and 2) more lenient policies than I did (I was in Argentina, 2007-2009). I did not feel comfortable reading non-approved materials (I was one of those who worried that his lack of missionary success could be remedied by ever-more-strict adherence to regulations), so though I bought a couple books while down there, I never read them as a missionary. Save the nice illustrated dictionary I bought.

    I read through the missionary library once. Once was enough for me. But that left me with:

    – Every church magazine left in one apartment during a transfer when a companion preferred to sleep (everything was later than 2000).

    – Lots of church manuals, including Teachings of the Presidents of the Church (I learned about the Law of Adoption from the Wilford Woodruff one!), Duties and Blessings of the Priesthood (in which the temple covenants, to my shock, were practically listed), and institute manuals I didn’t touch because I knew the sorts of interpretations they proferred (literalist, particularly).

    – Photocopied packets of apocryphal material, some purporting to be non-scriptural revelations to Joseph Smith, while others were “how to combat X religion” guides and at least one was a testimonial from a purported ex-Catholic monk who “revealed” that the Vatican had evidence for Mormonism’s truthfulness. (Most of these I never touched, being wary and dismissive of so-called “deep doctrine.”)

    – That Skousen Atonement talk we listened to as a zone one Christmas.

    – Nothing by Nibley or any other LDS intellectuals. They don’t have such books in the outskirts of the Church! Church “libraries” were full of dozens of copies of “Our Heritage” and excess manuals.

    My last companion requested permission from the MP to read “The Miracle of Forgiveness” and got it (surprising that he’d need permission, given that TMOF is sold at the MTC bookstore… where only missionaries shop!). I read a page or two, found all the rumors about its guilt-tripping melodrama confirmed, and put it down.

    Comment by TK — August 21, 2014 @ 11:36 am

  21. Now this is interesting. In West Virginia (2004-2006), we largely had the standard post-Preach My Gospel library, but we did have a ton of CDs that included John Bytheway, as well as other EFY motivational sort of speakers, Truman Madsen, and the Harold B. Lee miracle file CDs. By this point, we would often just have a member burn them for us, so they could be distributed (albeit perhaps illegally) pretty far. I purchased a copy of Bruce Hafen’s “Broken Heart” which I still find one of the most beautiful treatments of the atonement (regardless what philosophers tell me differently.) I think we thought there was no hard rule on what you could listen to, but reading in a book format was more questionable. In book form, I had a copy of Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith which I carried with my scriptures. Everyone had a collection of faith promoting poetry, prophet quotes, anonymous legends, etc. that we kept around.

    Comment by Chris Blythe — August 21, 2014 @ 6:32 pm

  22. What did the other missionaries think of you personal library?

    I couldn’t say. I had a few companions who sampled some books, and I became kind of the go-to guy for questions. Since I also served in some small and isolated places and never in a 4-man apartment when I had books, most people never knew.

    Comment by Ben S — August 21, 2014 @ 9:50 pm

  23. In my mission (NYC, 1978-80), the mission library was the scriptures, Jesus the Christ, Articles of Faith, Marvelous Work and a Wonder, Story of the Latter-day Saints, The Miracle of Forgiveness, The Challenge (Alvin R. Dyer), and the Mission Manual. We were expected to read all of these, and to restrict our reading to these, except for church magazines, the Church News, and the standard proselyting materials. Church teaching manuals weren’t officially on the list, but it was considered obvious that they were okay.

    We were regularly nagged about whether we had finished reading the mission library. The Story of the Latter-day Saints was out of print at the time, and nobody had it except for one elder who loaned me his copy long enough to read. Nobody actually finished reading the library except for the fortunate few who were able to borrow the mission’s lone copy of The Story of the Latter-day Saints.

    I believe I also had A Companion to Your Study of the Book of Mormon and a compilation of conference talks by Marvin J. Ashton. A member gave the the Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary on the Bible, and I read a little of that. I recall occasionally thumbing through a magazine at someone’s house. Beyond that, I don’t recall reading anything other than the mission library.

    Oh yeah, and I kept up with the 1979 World Series by reading newspaper headlines on people’s doorstep. Curse you Pittsburgh Pirates!

    Comment by Left Field — August 23, 2014 @ 7:23 am

  24. Roots had just come out. I justified it telling myself it was about genealogy.

    Comment by wonderdog — August 24, 2014 @ 6:21 am

  25. I’m a bit late to this post, but I actually read the missionary library PRIOR to my mission (NYC, 2000-2002). Once there I did our “Mastery” program, which involved memorizing scriptures, reading the Book of Mormon 4x, marking it differently each time, memorizing the discussions, etc. It was basically supposed to be your personal study for about the first year. I finished it in 8 months. While reading through the missionary library. Twice.

    At that point I merely informed my president that I would no longer be following the rule about only reading the missionary library. He seemed amenable, as long as I stuck to church stuff, which was vaguely defined.

    I remember reading “Who Wrote the Bible” by Friedman (was randomly in one of my apartments), “Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism” by Bushman (church library), “American Moses,” by Arrington, “Latter Days” by Coke Newell (gifts from professors teaching a class on Mormonism we got to guest lecture at), “In the Eye of the Storm” by John Groberg (sent by my mother since I was going a little crazy by then), and smattering of anti-Mormon and anti-anti-Mormon books that my roommates or companions had. Then there was one fiction book recounting Elijah’s ministry, and there may have been a fiction book about a giant shark that rises from the depths of the ocean and terrorizes the worldwide community. (I’m a little embarrassed about that one myself.)

    Comment by CarlC — August 27, 2014 @ 10:22 am

  26. After I read the standard works and the missionary library, I read all of Talmage. After the second time, I read a Marvelous Work and a Wonder, some Skousen, all of Holland’s books to that point (2007-2009), and every Ensign I could get my hands on. I wish that I would have had access to certain other authors (Hafen, Maxwell, Hinckley, Nibley) but, alas.

    I often think if I would really be a better missionary now that I have read so much more. There are advantages and disadvantages to the restrictions, but I wish there were more options. Both of my presidents were pretty open to reading other things once someone had read the missionary library and standard works.

    Comment by J Stuart — August 28, 2014 @ 9:22 pm


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