The LDS missionary program as we know it came of age under David O. McKay. It is the subject of Chapter 10 in the recent award-winning biography David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (U of U Press, 2005). For example, prior to 1960 the minimum age for young men to serve missions was 21 and for young women it was 23; in that year it was dropped to 19 and 21, respectively. That alone boosted the number of serving missionaries by approximately 40%. I'll summarize a few more interesting facts and issues, such as the "quantity versus quality" issue which first came to the fore in the McKay era. All of my discussion until my closing "My Comments" paragraph is summarized from Chapter 10 of the book.
The New Conversion Model
In the McKay era (he was President of the Church from 1951 to 1970) "missionary work" meant primarily the US, Canada, and Europe. That's where the membership was; that's where the LDS heritage pointed. A key moment was when Alvin R. Dyer was appointed President of the European Mission in 1959. He adopted a restructured approach to missionary work that focused on a "conversion experience" rather than a long "inform and persuade" process. He developed his approach during earlier experience as a mission president in the central US. [Dyer later served as an Assistant to the Twelve, an Apostle but not a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, and a Counselor to David O. McKay.]
It wasn't just the practical advantage to quick baptism that motivated Dyer's approach. He conducted his own interviews with recent converts to Mormonism. He asked, for example, "When did you first get the feeling that the gospel was true?" Seven out of ten responded it was on their first contact with a missionary. It was plain to Dyer that this was an early witness of the Holy Ghost and that they ought to be baptized as soon as possible. The traditional program called for a long process of teaching — and reading and discussing and questioning, invariably delaying commitment and baptism. A mission president who served under Dyer commented on this approach: "If you don't strike while the iron is hot they can lose that testimony. But once they're baptized and have the Holy Ghost conferred on them, then it stays with them" (p. 234). Nice theory.
T. Bowring Woodbury, a charismatic American called to serve as a mission president over the British Mission in 1958, followed the same approach. "Only weeks after assuming his new duties, he scrapped the church's standard but cumbersome proselytizing plan and replaced it with a steamlined version that emphasized conversion rather than instruction, thus borrowing from his earlier experience as Alvin Dyer's counselor" (p. 234).
Rise and Fall
Numerically, the results were stunning. LDS convert baptisms in the British Mission in jumped from 1,404 in 1959 to 4,591 in 1960. It wasn't just England: in the European missions as a whole, baptisms were up almost 300 percent. Unfortunately, it wasn't just charismatic leadership, a new conversion model, streamlined discussions, and a boost in the size of the missionary corps that was at work. There were also questionable incentive programs (i.e., baptism quotas for missionaries, with rewards like trips to London for the successful ones) and "baseball baptisms" (sometimes the kids didn't even know they'd been baptized, and the parents weren't always consulted). The long-term activity rates of the new converts were not good. By 1963 the program had burned out, and new leadership was appointed in Europe to clean up the mess (my term, but it accurately characterizes the scenario described in the book).
There's an interesting discussion of what the "cleaners" were supposed to do with the sham baptisms. Simplifying the account in the book, the cleaners argued for some sort of simplified name removal procedure to clean up the records, but President McKay was opposed. His position, expressed in a First Presidency letter, was to work with parents and children to convert them to the Gospel and Church activity. If that doesn't work and "if they insist upon having their names removed, action should be taken after a reasonable effort by regular ecclesiastical court procedure" (p. 251). That seems like a missed opportunity to develop a name removal procedure different from excommunication which wasn't revisited until the Church was forced to do so more recently. [See here for some interesting discussion on the name removal issue.] I wonder what's being done right now in Chile and the Phillipines?
The chapter ends with the question: "What is the best way of going about proselytizing?" Obviously, there is no simple and universally applicable answer to that question. Maybe the true or ideal conversion process varies by geographical location, by culture, and even by individual. But it's clear the "rush to baptism" model pioneered in the 1960s has its problems, especially when paired with putting excessive pressure on missionaries to baptize. It remained popular with mission presidents until quite recently, when senior leaders have finally started to emphasize the quality end of the "quantity versus quality" debate. Sending Apostles out into "the mission field" on long-term assignment (to encounter first-hand the results of decades of the LDS overemphasis on missionary work and baptisms) seems like a real step forward.
My own view stems from the economic principle that underpriced resources are inevitably overused. Missionaries have almost zero cost since they are paid no salary and have no fringe benefits to speak of (e.g., the health care provided to serving missionaries is pathetically lacking). The truth is there are just too many missionaries. If the Church cut the number of full-time missionaries to about 20,000, but gave each pair of missionaries a car, an office with a telephone and a computer, cell phones, and a proper support system (like an 800 number to the COB or FARMS to answer tricky gospel questions) — well, that's what the next Alvin R. Dyer ought to come up with.