Religious Education and Missionary Training

Historian's Corner

Richard O. Cowan

Richard O. Cowan ( is a professor of Church History and Doctrine at BYU.

Missionary preparation has been a major focus in the Lord’s work since the beginning.[1] As early as May 1829, the Lord instructed Hyrum Smith, “Seek not to declare my word, but first seek to obtain my word” (D&C 11:21). In 1832, the Lord directed Joseph Smith to organize a school of the prophets so that elders could “teach one another” in gospel and other subjects that they might “be prepared in all things” for their callings (see D&C 88:77–80, 118). The Lord expected the elders to “study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people,” for he declared, “it shall come to pass in that day, that every man shall hear the fulness of the gospel in his own tongue, and in his own language, through those who are ordained unto this power” (D&C 90:15, 11). This school opened at Kirtland in January of the following year.

Missionary training was important during the early days of Brigham Young Academy (BYA). In 1883 “missionary meetings” were added to the offering of the Theological Department, a forerunner to today’s Religious Education. Returned missionaries and even General Authorities addressed the young men. By 1894 missionary classes at BYA were being well attended.

In 1899 the academy’s president, Benjamin Cluff Jr., noted, “It is often asserted by missionary presidents that many of our young men who are called to preach the gospel are wholly, or in part, unprepared, not because they have not a strong testimony, but because they are ignorant of the principles of the gospel and of the scriptures.” He therefore offered to organize a program at Brigham Young Academy at no additional charge to the Church. These classes included instruction in theology, public speaking, vocal music, language, penmanship, correspondence, and the conducting of meetings. Mission presidents enthusiastically praised the results, believing that young men who had received this training were far superior to those who had not.

In 1925 the Church opened its own Missionary Home and Preparatory Training School in Salt Lake City. The home of one of Brigham Young’s daughters on State Street, just north of the Beehive House, was remodeled to accommodate the new program. Because at this time missionaries typically had responsibility for promoting Church activities in addition to proselyting, their weeklong orientation featured presentations by the auxiliary organizations as well as genealogy.

LeRoi C. Snow, son of the late President Lorenzo Snow and the home’s first director, believed the greatest good accomplished by the home was in “helping the missionaries obtain the missionary spirit.” He was convinced that the elders’ concentrating their minds on the work of the Lord, visiting the temple, seeing prayers answered, and having to express themselves before their associates “all increase faith, strengthen testimony, and increase eagerness to preach the gospel and bear testimony.”[2] As the number of missionaries coming for training increased during later decades, this program moved into larger facilities nearby.

When elders going to Mexico and Argentina experienced lengthy delays in obtaining visas, the Missionary Language Institute was launched at Brigham Young University in 1961. It provided important language instruction while the missionaries were waiting to enter the field. Two years later this program gained mission status and became known as the Language Training Mission. German, Portuguese, and many other languages were eventually added to the curriculum. In 1978 the missionary home in Salt Lake City was closed, and all missionaries came directly to Provo for their orientation. At this time the name Missionary Training Center was adopted.

Meanwhile, missionary preparation classes continued to be an important part of the curriculum at BYU. Faculty members who were assigned to teach these classes generally developed their own outlines. Typically, these included a review of basic gospel principles taught by missionaries, as well as a consideration of the history and beliefs of major Christian and other religious bodies. During the early 1980s, Church and MTC officials were increasingly concerned about the quality of preparation received by Latter-day Saint youth prior to their missionary service. MTC personnel worked closely with BYU religion faculty members in developing a new missionary preparation course to be taught throughout the Church Educational System. It taught proselyting principles to be used in finding and teaching.

By the early twenty-first century, about twelve sections of Religion C 130 (Missionary Preparation) were being offered, typically taught by former mission presidents. The University catalogue states that this course “focuses upon the purpose, skills, and doctrines of missionary work and prepares prospective missionaries for a more meaningful MTC and mission experience.” A special prospective missionary’s fireside, addressed by a General Authority, became a well-attended event each semester.

At the general conference in October 2012, President Thomas S. Monson announced that young men would be eligible for missionary service at age eighteen rather than nineteen, as long as they had graduated from high school. Young women could enter the mission field at age nineteen rather than twenty-one. These changes immediately caused a wave of enthusiasm among Church members. At the time of the announcement, fifty-eight thousand missionaries were serving, and a year later, their ranks had increased to eighty thousand.

This growing interest in missionary service had a significant impact on the demand for “mission prep” courses at BYU. As a result, during the winter semester 2013, six additional sections were added. Whereas in the past, most students had been young men, young women now typically represented more than half the enrollment. Religious Education leaders anticipate that this trend will continue as an increasing number of young men will have completed their missions even before coming to BYU. Teaching missionary preparation classes will continue to be a favorite assignment of Religious Education faculty and will surely help to prepare hundreds of future missionaries as the Lord hastens his work.


[1] For a more complete history of missionary training, see the author’s “‘Called to Serve’ : A History of Missionary Training,” in Go Ye Into All the World (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, 2012), 23–44.

[2] LeRoi C. Snow, “The Missionary Home,” Improvement Era, May 1928, 552–54.