Talks from the Missionary Underground

by: Jake

November 24, 2011

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Missionaries are prone to speculate and indulge in what they consider is deep doctrine. Perhaps to abate speculation the reading material of missionaries is restricted to the standard works, Preach my Gospel, and Jesus the Christ. Despite this, amongst the missionaries there is always a collection of talks that are circulated, photocopied and studied secretly by the missionaries to fuel their doctrinal speculation.

Personally I am from the Preach My Gospel generation of missionaries and was among one the first groups to use these materials all the way from the MTC to the end of my mission. As an avid reader, the restriction on reading was outrageous to me. Especially when I saw all the books missionaries were allowed to read before. As soon as I became aware of the black market talks that circulated in the mission, I pounced on them and rabidly devoured them. In talking with other returned missionaries, I have discovered that these black market talks are pretty commonly circulated and discussed.

These talks reflect the mind set of missionaries, but also show how false doctrine gets circulated. In hindsight, I can see how these talks led to many wrong conclusions on my part and colored my teaching.

Alvin R. Dyer – For What Purpose

 

“You may not fully know that now but you were a person of nobility in the preexistence.  If you were not, you would have been born into one of these other channels, and you would not have been born in this day and age because the Lord has withheld the choice spirits of the preexistence to come forth in this, the last dispensation.”

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Why do missionaries love it?

It gives a logically robust, if not theologically sound, reason why blacks were denied the priesthood. This talk perpetuates pseudo doctrines legitimise the priesthood ban. Missionaries, who are often called on to answer for these types of historical problems, find refuge in Dyer’s explanations, which they then share with investigators. 

From the talk:  “The reason that spirits are born into Negro bodies is because those spirits rejected the Priesthood of God in the pre-existence.  This is the reason why you have Negros upon the earth.” The neatness of the answer masks the cruelty that lies underneath it more palatable. Missionaries simply are not equipped to answer a question they are often asked, and they do not have the means to find a satisfactory answer in the available approved materials. The result is that simplistic falsehoods are embraced and shared.

This talk also plays up the elitist mentality of missionaries. You are the chosen generation, the third who will be the leadership of the celestial worlds when the times comes, the first third of the ressurection who will prepare the kingdom for Christ’s reign. This is a very attractive doctrine for missionaries. It makes them feel special, it gives the mundane knocking on doors a higher significance then it would have otherwise because they are part of the chosen generation who are seeking out celestial leaders.

What is wrong with it?

Looking back it amazes me how I was unable to see all of the many flaws with it.

First, it is racist.  Secondly, it raises the problem of evil circumstances.  To say that a person’s circumstance of birth is a reward for righteousness in the pre-existence, means that logically people who are born in terrible circumstances deserved that. Can you imagine telling a child born into a family who abuses them physically and sexually, or who have no money and are starving that they were born into that life because they deserved it due to their lack of faithfulness in the pre-existence?  This is a diabolical doctrine that is self-justifying.  Why do we need to be charitable toward those who have only gotten what they deserve?  What kind of God is it that would do this (this is the same issue Packer raised about homosexuality)?

Cleon Skousen – The Meaning of the Atonement

 

“Now, all of a sudden, we begin to catch the vision of the miracle of God’s creation. He goes up into the outer darkness of unorganized intelligences and unorganized bits of element and combines them together so that a little tiny bit of element has an intelligence attached to it and now you can command it.”

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What do missionaries love about it?

This talk is highly speculative, as a result it was wonderful food for deep doctrine discussion amongst missionaries. Skousen explained the Atonement in terms of intelligences, godhood and other deeper principles and this became a wonderful springboard to discuss cosmic theology and Kolob doctrine. Missionaries eat this up with a spoon.

What’s wrong with it?

A decent exploration of some of the issues that arise from Skousen’s talk can be found here. Personally I have little beef with this talk. I don’t agree with Skousen’s model of the Atonement, but I don’t think there is much that is offensive or concerning about this talk.

Elder Bruce R. Mcconkie – Seven deadly heresies

“There is no salvation in believing a false doctrine. Truth, diamond truth, truth unmixed with error, truth alone leads to salvation.”

Mcconkie talks seem to be a missionary staple.  This one was quite popular.

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Why do missionaries love it?

It is very black and white. Mcconkie has a very authoritative way of speaking. Missionary thinking is often plagued by this binary view of the world. The divisions between good and bad have never been so clear cut to me as they were on my mission, and Mcconkie lives in this black and white world. Again it gives nice neat answers to problematic areas of theology. It also delves into some speculative doctrine such as the progression of God and progression through kingdoms. The fact that Mcconkie raises these areas practically condones the discussion of them by missionaries.

What is wrong with it?

It is currently in vogue at the moment to denounce Mcconkie. This is partly I suspect because of the emphatic way in which he spoke. He presented his opinions as a declaration of the truth with no room for deviation from it. The seven deadly heresies talk exemplifies this. McConkie’s dogma puts all who disagree in the camp of “heretic.”

The two major problems that I have with this talk is its stance on evolution and progression through kingdoms. In both cases, the church has stated that there is no official position. Yet, Mcconkie firmly takes a stand and declares that all who disagree with him are heretics.  Missionaries who are unaware that there is no official stance often prefer the comfort of McConkie’s confidently declared view.

Elder Holland – Missionary Work and the Atonement

“I am convinced that missionary work is not easy because salvation is not a cheap experience. Salvation never was easy.”

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Why did we love it?

Elder Holland is very bold in his manner of teaching. The version that appeared in the Ensign was edited to remove some of the stronger passages that were in the original MTC address.  At least in my mission, the original was circulated. There was also an audio version of another Holland MTC address that was circulated in which he said how missionaries should react when investigators didn’t read the Book of Mormon. The memory of Elder Holland crying out passionately will always remain embedded in my mind.

What is wrong with it?

In terms of content, it implies that we must go through some hard work to gain salvation, which downplays grace. Mormons are often criticized for a belief that we “earn” salvation rather than it being given to us by God’s grace.  Holland uses passionate rhetoric and performance to give his talks the appearence of conviction and strength that can distort his message. Just because you state something with passion does not make it any more true, but these talks seem to give that impression.

V. Dallas Merril – Will You?

“To invite with “Will you?” evokes a yes or no answer, which is an exercise of a person’s moral agency.”

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Why Missionaries loved it?

It feeds into the confidence that missionaries need to have in their work. It reminds us that our purpose is to challenge people to change their lives and gives a theological background to why the commitment pattern should be followed.

What’s wrong with it?

It claims to respect agency by giving others a choice, but the technique puts people into a situation where they almost feel compelled to say yes. Here are two men in suits who are very nice, who are giving you a book, and then ask you ‘Will you let us come back?’  To say yes is so much easier than to say no. ‘No’ requires confrontation. This talk essentially promotes manipulative tactics and guilt to get people to agree to do things. To ask “Will you obey this commandment that we have told you comes from God?” makes it very difficult to decline as it implies the investigator would be rejecting God directly.

These are just a few talks that were highly circulated around on my mission and some of the false doctrines and attitudes that they helped foster. No doubt there are more, and I wonder if the same talks are found amongst missionaries across the world.

Thoughts

What talks were being read by missionaries on your mission?

What do you think of these talks?

What doctrines did you teach on your mission that you now see where flawed?

Why do missionaries like to speculate about deep doctrine?

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26 Responses to Talks from the Missionary Underground

  1. whizzbang on November 24, 2011 at 7:05 AM

    We were allowed to read anything written by a GA after a certain point in our mission. One of my comps had Elder Alvin R. Dyer’s “the challenging and testifying Missionary” for a week we read that and also Ether ch. 12, one day because of that talk we committed everyone we met and bizarre results and we got nowhere!that was the last time that I ever read that talk! I also listened to a lot of Elder Rector’sbooks and talk tapes from old BYU devotionals and honestly it screwed me over when I came home, I love Elder rector but I think now a ton of stuff was his own opinion, and not anything binding, andhe had the attitude that if it worked for him in 1965 or in his mission it WILL work for you now-I just don’t buy it

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  2. Morgan D on November 24, 2011 at 9:45 AM

    For me the desire to read black market talks was a desire for some form of entertainment. On your mission you can’t listen to music, you can’t watch tv, you can’t watch non church movies, you leave behind your fiction books and video games so all you are left with is doctrine and church history or apologetic material. Plus you are stuck in boring meeting, or doing boring things so you are literally starved for something interesting. So I would devour the monthly Ensign and New Era but I would also search for books to read. And frankly I thought it was very sad and pathetic for people to try and guilt trip me into not reading LDS material. Out of all the “disobediance” I could be displaying I thought this should be the least of their worries.

    So the short answer is that I think this is a form of entertainment for missionaries where they are left with nothing to do but read church talks and books.

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  3. mh on November 24, 2011 at 11:02 AM

    I guess this dates me, but I loved ‘a marvelous work and a wonder’ by legrand richards. I have heard that it is no longer authorized for missionaries.

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  4. geoffsn on November 24, 2011 at 11:25 AM

    In my mission when we wanted to discuss “deep doctrine” and speculate, it often involved looking up materials on fundamentalist websites and discussing early church doctrines that we no longer talk about in church.

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  5. Paul 2 on November 24, 2011 at 1:34 PM

    A marvelous work and a wonder was also allowed when I was in the field. It is too bad the reading list gets ever shorter. On the other hand, Preach my Gospel is reasonably well edited, so there’s a positive point.

    I think that there were copies of “Living by the Power of Faith” by Gene R. Cook floating around the mission. It starts with him in Latin America losing his scriptures by theft and getting them back miraculously. I ended up believing that the anti-faith of the French people was stronger than the faith of the missionaries, because with rare exception, they stayed the way they were. So it wasn’t that the book wasn’t true, it was just that we couldn’t believe harder than they could disbelieve. :)

    Not to be too negative, but I had the opposite experience 2 years ago. I left my carefully annotated scriptures in another building in my stake and I never got them back even after various efforts. Maybe my disillusionment has driven me to seek out W&T. I am glad it worked out for Elder Cook, though.

    I took great pleasure in reading “Germinal” on the plane ride home, an experience that has marked my attitudes ever since. I compared the surviving prematurely aged protagonist to Moroni, and the social conflict and injustice to the BoM societies.

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  6. Roger on November 24, 2011 at 3:50 PM

    Things have obviously changed a lot since the 1970-72 timeframe. We had the Talmage books and MW&W. But a lot of us had McConkie Doctrine and Covey’s Spiritual Roots of Human Relations. We all were debating whether it was better to be translated or to have our callings and elections made sure. Along with that we were afflicted with the Melvin Ballard/Alvin Dyer legends that one’s pre-mortal valor was correlated inversely with the distance one was born from Temple Square in SLC.

    We were pathetic.

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  7. Jake on November 24, 2011 at 4:51 PM

    I did read A Marvelous Work and a Wonder on my mission, I guess that is a mark of how much missions differ and have changed. As I was considered Apostate by my companion for reading Le Grand Ricards on my mission. I never showed him the collection of anti-mormon leaflets I acquired from people for entertainment.

    I can also remember listening to the tapes all about subliminal messages in pop music, like if you play some songs backwards it says ‘smoke marjuana’ and the like. I think there was also a quote about Mick Jagger on an airplane saying his purpose was to destroy the souls of men, or something like that.

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  8. DavidH on November 24, 2011 at 8:24 PM

    I am surprised the Dyer talk is still circulating. 35 years ago, only one elder in my mission even had a copy (and he treated it almost as contraband), and the reaction of the other missionaries was that it was a bunch of bologna. And this was before the 1978 revelation.

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  9. Aaron R. on November 25, 2011 at 3:24 AM

    Jake, your post reminds me one I wrote a few years ago now on ‘Mormon Studies auf mish’.

    I had read every. single. one. of these on my mission too. I agree with DavidH about Dyer. Surprisingly, it was not so much the racist folklore that bothered and made me disregard the whole argument but they way he perceived the kingdoms of glory as a corporate hierarchy.

    I think your criticism of Elder Holland is a little unfair. I am not sure he undermines grace by emphasising that salvation does imply hard work. I think his major combatant is what he calls easy grace. I can get behind that, I am not sure grace is easy or comfortable.

    Also, I still kinda like something about ‘Will you?’ just because I think that there are times when I am too timid. I see his talk as a call for forthrightness and honesty. He seemed against the sort of surreptitious approach to missionary work. Certainly there are problems here but I have fond memories of most of them. Even with McConkie’s I find great pleasure in knowing that I am a heretic.

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  10. Rob T. on November 25, 2011 at 6:08 AM

    On my stateside mission eight years ago, the MP required us to read “The Challenging and Testifying Missionary” once a month, along with President Kimball’s “Lock Your Heart.” Gene R. Cook’s talks on faith, the 17 principles of the true church, and Truman G. Madsen’s talks on Joseph Smith were all on CDs that circulated around the mission.

    By 18 months in, the most captivating reading was the short stories that used to be published in the New Era because, well, they were fiction.

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  11. Ben on November 25, 2011 at 6:31 AM

    What floated aroudn my mission most was Grant Harrison stuff, like “Calling Down the Powers of Heaven.” I never even heard of the Dyer talk on my mission, and I hunted for obscure stuff like that for entertainment purposes.

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  12. Jake on November 25, 2011 at 7:29 AM

    Aaron R, I probably am a bit harsh on Holland, most of the time I like him. I just think that in his talks to missionaries at the MTC he gets to caught up in emotionalism and sensationalism. So he says thinks for rhetorical effect. He probably doesn’t want to undermine grace, but the way he expresses himself leaves him open to suggesting that its about hard work rather then grace.

    Reading your post made me realise that I missed out on Madsen and Nibley on my list, who both featured in the mission and also the King Follet Sermon, which was passed around by missionaries a LOT.

    Rob T, I know of many missionaries who based their entire study around the 17 principles of the true church, instead of the approved manual. It was at that point that I became skeptical about it.

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  13. Jake on November 25, 2011 at 7:30 AM

    I think being called a heretic by Mcconkie is not so much an insult but a compliment and a sign that you are on the right track in life.

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  14. Marcus on November 25, 2011 at 3:12 PM

    There was one piece of extra-canon literature that went around my mission, distributed by the Prez himself – a green book written by some missionary who had the record for most baptisms in some Southeastern US mission. I remember being rather disdainful of it, but for the life of me, I can’t remember the name.

    It was a green paperback book, the same size as one of those new thin copies of the Book of Mormon, but with fewer pages. The author later became some successful businessman who later offered free copies of his book to any MP who wanted them.

    The one line I remember in it was when he stopped by this one lady’s house the day he left the mission, placed a BoM, and then flew home to news of her subsequent baptism.

    Anyone know what I am talking about?

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  15. GBSmith on November 25, 2011 at 5:54 PM

    We had Jesus the Christ and Marvelous Work and a Wonder but on Monday’s we could read anything we wanted. I read the serialized “In Cold Blood” in a bunch of rain soaked New Yorkers I found in a dumptster.

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  16. Angie on November 26, 2011 at 9:29 AM

    All of this makes me wonder which talks from our current leaders will look crazy/illogical/self-righteous/etc. in 30 years. That’s a lot of pressure.

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  17. whizzbang on November 26, 2011 at 10:12 AM

    @16-Elder Bednar’s pickle one comes to mind! but yeah I wonder if today’s LDS are more critically minded then in times past

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  18. Toni on November 26, 2011 at 7:55 PM

    I didn’t know A Marvelous Work and a Wonder was a forbidden book. It was *required* reading when I was on a mission (1980). That’s really strange.

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  19. N. on November 26, 2011 at 11:38 PM

    What talks were being read by missionaries on your mission?

    I never had, heard of, nor saw any such talks my entire mission. However, I’m of a different generation than the newfangled “Preach My Gospel” missionaries.

    I was not aware of any “black market” in talks or books, etc.

    The only “off-list” reading I did was some short book which was set in a court defending the church beliefs. It seemed kind of amateurish and odd to me. Oh, and I read the anti-mormon literature my investigators were given by their local pastors.

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  20. Rigel Hawthorne on November 27, 2011 at 2:21 AM

    We had a letter floating around allegedly from Mark E. Peterson to a writer of Jehovah’s Witness background that provided an articulate bash.

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  21. hawkgrrrl on November 27, 2011 at 5:02 AM

    “On my stateside mission eight years ago, the MP required us to read “The Challenging and Testifying Missionary” once a month.” Our mission was also a “Challenging and Testifying” mission. However, the result was extremely high rates of inactivity (despite being the highest baptizing mission in Europe at the time). But on the upside, nobody got the idea that we’d have more baptisms as a direct link to how many hours we worked or how obedient we were. In fact, success almost seemed inversely proportionate.

    We also had some talks that circulated with Native American lore that bore parallels to BOM stories / theology, including one in which a girl was resurrected in front of someone after a plow unearthed her skeleton.

    We also had the usual analogy stories missionaries like to use in talks, like the one that likens the human race to nasty birds in a cage. One elder also shared the story about his “older brother,” talking about how much he loved and looked up to him, and then they killed him. The shocked members (who all crossed themselves when he got to the punchline) totally didn’t get that it was an analogy. Forever after, they referred to him as the elder whose brother was killed “just like Jesus” but in America. People would shake their heads and say, “Who thought such a thing could happen in our life time in America?”

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  22. Douglas on November 27, 2011 at 1:41 PM

    Methinks most of the problem comes in naive missionaries (and some supposedly mature members can also display naivety) lapping up every “wild-arsed” speculation of a GA, especially one whose bones have long been a-mouldering in some UT cemetery, as if it were canonized scripture straight from “He-Sus” Himself. That isn’t to say that each of these brethren didn’t have something valuable to contribute, because they did. But it’s THEIR own opinions and experiences, and the Priesthood of the respective missionary called to serve is just as good and is far more applicable at the moment of service!
    Elder McConkie holds a special regard not only due to his uniquely self-assured style, but there he was a big man with a bigger heart. When I’d been a member about six months or so I had the temerity to write him a letter about something in Church history. Naturally I’d pick the one GA who’d have the temerity to answer back, calling it as he saw it! He set me straight on where my focus should be as a new member of the Church, particularly one preparing to serve a mission, and even included a few pointers. He told me that his reply was in fact an exception, that he rarely could answer letters even though he would have like to (this in the pre-blogosphere days, of course!). He did ask me to notify him when I got my mission call. So, months later when ready to go to the great Missione D’Italia di Roma, I did send a photocopy of both my original letter and my mission call letter. I also included a note that my parents were pissed at my leaving school (was studying Engineering at Fresno State) and wouldn’t talk to me. Once there at the MTC, who should appear to talk but Elder McConkie himself, and right before the program begins, I get a message that Pres. Christensen (who was MTC Prez at the time) wanted to see me right after the program. When I get to the MP’s office, there’s Joe J AND Elder McConkie…how my garments weren’t soiled at the moment, I don’t know. McConkie greeted me warmly and asked if I wrote my folks every week. I told him that I did, but they wouldn’t acknowledge my letters. The man gave me a big bear hug and told me that as far as he was concerned, Heavenly Father was happy with me and he predicted that my “earthly” Dad would someday be proud that I’d served an honorable mission. So please remember before you carp and criticize some GA’s work, that he’s a dude with feelings, opinions, and passions just like you, and most will confess that they still don’t feel that they’ve got it all together. And do also remember that most have left something either lucrative or personally rewarding to sign up for a long-term hitch (it used to be lifetime, but now many get just a five-year hitch). When you’ve sacrificed similarly, then feel entitled to criticize.

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  23. ron on November 27, 2011 at 3:50 PM

    I remember when “The Challenging and Testifying Missionary” hit my mission. One of the AP’s got ahold of it and turned it into a zone conference training. For the next few months our elders were inviting people to be baptized during street contacts and first discussions. Most folks said no. Those who said yes tended not to go through with it. I think the problem with that approach was that it failed to impress upon people the magnitude of the decision.

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  24. whizzbang on November 28, 2011 at 11:21 PM

    Here is another take on Skousen’s talk

    http://lds-studies.blogspot.com/2010/05/skousen-and-atonement.html

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  25. The Other Clark on December 2, 2011 at 11:44 AM

    My favorite was the “Book of Lemuel” a spoof on 1st Nephi originally from the Provo Student Review, I think.

    The Gene R. Cook talk about sitting next to Mick Jagger on the plane and telling him he was a servant of the Devil was also widely circulated.

    Dyer was persona non grata in Mexico, because misionaries of the 90’s faced 95% inactivity rates thanks to his baseball baptism philosophy.

    Kimball’s “Lock Your Heart” was given to every misionary by the president upon arrival in the field, along with a collection of hokey faith-promoting short stories of questionable cross-cultural worth.

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  26. Standresolute on May 24, 2013 at 11:21 AM

    The author’s binary opinion of the so called “black market” talks is bizarre. If a human being of God is in tune with the Holy Spirit of God, understanding the “intent” of the message surpasses the “legalese” aspect of the message. I’m from the pre – preach my gospel” age and have taught many deeper doctrines in mission prep courses to augment and ratify the greater testimony seeking missionary prior to their mission experience. The author also has a very binary view on what is perceived to be right and wrong in each talk yet criticizes many sermon messages for being the same. The fight between righteousness and evil is exactly that, a binary view of salvation. We also have judgement and mercy, principle and law. Our brains are built that way (left/right hemispheres) even hough there is a lot of grey in between, we can gravitate to one state of existence from the other by adherence to righteousness.
    I am very familiar with all the talks and I would add many others that fill the soul with light and intelligence. Don’t deny yourself blessings from advancing your knowledge and spiritual intelligence while in the flesh. I would also advise any from compartmentalizing life with nice tidy convenient truths and not seeking to advance your testimony beyond convenience.

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