The stories we tell

Aaron’s recent post about idiosyncratic mission rules was a fun look at the origins of the types of stories that every missionary hears, types of legends. I wonder if and how the stories of Aaron’s skateboard and window were told and retold. It was with these thoughts that I came across a paragraph from a 1898 Mississippi Conference circular in the recently digitized Southern Star:

The following occurrences are quite well known to all the Elders in our Conference. Ministers who fought us have fallen dead in their pulpits; others who have dared to curse us and blaspheme the “Mormon God” have been stricken down so they could not till their appointments where they were to speak against us; but during months of suffering they have had time to reflect on their career and given one more chance to repent and turn from their evil ways. Towns where they have rejected us and driven us out in the middle of the night have, in a few short days, been burned to ashes. Men have turned us from their door, and during the night have been damaged hundreds of dollars by storms, while the neighbor with whom we stayed was not damaged any. The eyes of the blind have been opened and the cases of instant healing have been too numerous to think of naming, one pair of Elders reporting twenty-one cases of instant healing in twenty-three ordinations. (1)

I heard my share of mission lore: the German Laundromat that burned down after displaying the garments in the window; the crazy schismatic ZL’s in the south. I had a few odd mission rules: no music; no mother’s day calls home (though my pres. did import Mountain Dew, so it wasn’t completely austere). I also saw a few miracles.

This excerpt from the American South written about one hundred years to the time I served has a fascinating familiarity to it. It isn’t the first person accounts of Aaron’s ad hoc regulation. It isn’t the decades old legend from three missions over. But it captures the beliefs and stories that the missionaries told in their time and place. And I can’t help but see my missionary self with them.

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  1. O. D. Flake and A. B. Porter, “Mississippi Conference Circular,” Southern Star 1 (December 31, 1898): 39.

Comments

  1. J. Stapley, I found this quite moving. It highlights something in me that I seemed to have lost. My missionary self was a very different person: more self-righteous and more arrogant, but also more able to see the miraculous and also more filled with an expectant (hopeful) faith. Thank you, my friend, for sharing this.

  2. Our Mission had the Legend of the Polynesian Missionary Who Punched Out Ed Decker, Who Wore Temple Clothes To A Local Festival. There was another pretty legendary Polynesian Elder then-serving in our Mission. We all assumed someday their legends would be combined.

  3. That wasn’t a German laundromat, J. *Everybody* (or at least everybody in the French missions) knows it was a *French* laundromat! :D

    Bruce Crow at Amateur Mormon Historian has some illustrations of that. No matter how often missionaries have been sent into the Cane Creek area, it always seems to be presented as the first time elders have entered that area since the 1884 Cane Creek Massacre.

    And then there’s the whole Fate of the Persecutors pseudohistory. This seems to be a far more widespread phenomenon than mission legends, no?

  4. StillConfused says:

    By the quote in the OP, it sounds like the Danites were very busy.

  5. Thanks all. Ardis, I definately agree that we tell stories as a people. I just think that for various reasons the process is much more concentrated in the missions.

  6. Nick Literski says:

    J. Stapley and Ardis are both wrong! I served in the California San Diego Mission, and I can bear solemn witness that I was told approximately fifteenth-hand that the laundromat story happened in San Diego, involving missionaries whose names were far too sacred to actually be named in connection with said story!

    I always loved how these missionary legends always took place in your own mission! :-)

  7. I served in the England London South Mission and, boy, did we have stories. Here are a few at the top of my head:

    1. Alice Cooper served in our mission. This has been since debunked. Cooper was raised by a minister in an offshoot of the LDS religion and did not serve a mission, but honestly, before the era of the Internet, 1990-1992, when you could check facts easily, we all believed this was true.

    2. A rich elder who had his own private credit card took a round-trip flight on Concorde from Heathrow to New York. He never got off the plane. He just did it because he was bored and had the means. (This is plausible, but I don’t think it’s likely.)

    3. An elder ran off with a 50-year-old woman in a rental car and was discovered cruising around France about three months later. (I believe this one.)

    4. An elder flicked a cat in the nose and for some reason the cat died right on the spot. The cat’s owners were in the other room, so the elder and his companion decided to hide the cat under the coach before the could notice. The elders returned to the house a few days later and could smell the odor of the dead cat emitting from the couch, the family didn’t seem to notice or care. Then about a week later, they returned and noticed the smell was gone. They asked the family how they were doing. They said everything was fine except their cat died and they found its body under the couch. (This is certainly a legend similar to “The Three Nephites saving the sisters from a murderer” story.)

    5. A member who wanted to be exed from the church’s rolls, but didn’t want to “sin” to do it came to sacrament meeting in his full temple regalia. (Plausible.)

    6. A notorious anti who loved to bully the missionaries caught the bus with a pair of elders. He stood up in the full bus and said. “Elders, why don’t you tell these people about your temple garments.” One of the missionaries (who ended up being my comp and was very quick-witted.) replied, “Why do you care so much about my underwear? Are you some kind of pervert?” (That shut him up real fast. I believe this one.)

    7. A prior mission president encouraged his elders to drive around London in a van, picking up random homeless people with the offer of a free dinner. During dinner they would teach all of the discussions and then baptize the person that night if possible. This was typically done prior to the arrival of a GA. (Since the ward where this happened had more than 1,000 members on the books and about 150 active people, I believe some of this did happen.)

  8. Re: #5, I think that missions have a conservative folkloric culture (i.e. folklore is well-preserved) for the same reason that childhood culture is generally well-preserved: the quick turnaround time means that missionaries have little time to innovate or elaborate on mission stories before transferring away or going home. So the same stories are repeated only a few times per person with few changes. There is also a clear hierarchy as to who needs to know certain mission stories, as experienced trainers are given a quick few months to fully educate young missionaries who are brand new to the mission culture.

  9. Actually, Ardis, It wasn’t a French or a German laundromat. I have it on *very* good authority that it was a Southern California laundromat.

  10. Mark Brown says:

    In northern Europe where I served, the entire mission (180 missionaries) would baptize maybe 80 people per year. The story we always heard was about the super-effective elder who had been in the mission 5 or 6 years before, and who had converted dozens of people in every branch where he served.

  11. John Taber says:

    In my mission it was told that one particular missionary had had sex with a woman, but the (previous) mission president decided not to take any action, and keep the missionary out, serving. That led to a “stop snitching” mentality in my mission, as in, what could (or would) the current mission president do about problem elders?

    I was that missionary’s last companion. I never asked if the story about him was true.

  12. John Taber says:

    And one of the companions who told me this story was himself sent home early, several months later.

  13. @WaMo #7,
    Wamo, I always thought your Story number 4 happened in my mission except it was a poodle, not a cat. I’m pretty sure I heard the story from Ben S and he named an actual elder (who had since gone home)

  14. The laundramat was German, and it burned down because the elders whose garments were on display shook the dust from their feet….or so I heard.

  15. It’s certainly possible, though I don’t remember any poodle stories. I did hear some pretty crazy stuff from comp #2, in Verviers. Is it the role of second comp to share all the mission folklore?

    Nowadays, I tell the missionaries, “there was once an elder in this area who passed on crappy folklore and doctrinal myths without looking for sources, but he got hit by the F-train and died. True story.”

  16. Besides the laundromat story (which has got to take the cake for more widespread) and the one about the cat (not poodle), I heard the one about the sister missionaries tracting into a rapist/murderer who inexplicably didn’t invite them in. Later, he explained to the police that he hadn’t because of the “big guys standing behind them in the doorway” (angels? three Nephites?)

    In my mission, stories would go around explaining how various elders had gotten exiled to the smallest branches in the farthest reaches of the mission. As a greenie, I’d see these guys at zone conferences, but I could never bring myself to ask if the stories were true. Later, after serving in a couple of those areas, I figured the stories were bogus. And then I wondered what they had been saying about me!

  17. annegb5298 says:

    My home teacher told me he killed a small dog in much that same way. Would have been oh, about 75?

  18. It started from the very beginning. If I remember right, Lucy Mack Smith said that someone who turned away Samuel Smith was stricken with smallpox.

  19. These were called “gee (as in the letter “G”) wiz” stories in my mission.

  20. You’re all wrong. It was a small town laundromat in Missouri.

  21. Now here’s an interesting thing: I don’t remember any legends being told about things that happened in my mission (Bulgaria, 1995-1997). Of course, everyone knows about the bloody summer of 1994, when every day at least one missionary ended up at the mission nurse’s office because they got beat up. But I believe that story, because that was the reason we never wore name tags. (Yes, I’m serious.)

    But the point is, I wonder if I didn’t hear any of these legends because at the time, the mission had only been open for a few years, so the infamous laundromat hadn’t yet had time to open up shop in Sofia?

  22. I’m thinking that #2 DavidT and I must have served in the same mission. The Washington Seattle Mission was rampant with Ed Decker stories, but how could it not be with good Brother Decker sharing his “good news” all about? I’m sure some of my own experiences became mission lore; though I cannot claim being Polynesian or ever punching someone in the face.

    However, I enjoy the local mission stories much more. Having always gone on regular exchanges with the elders here in the good ol’ Alabama Birmingham Mission, it is fun to see how some of this “mission lore” comes into being over the years. Some of it is true, like the four elders who came back to my local area to “hang out” with a young lady from the unit, then wrecked the mission car here in town. Some of it is false, like the laundrymat in Tuscaloosa, AL that burnt down after displaying temple garments (what a WIDELY told story!). It’s the true faith-promoting stories I love the most though that I hear the missionaries sharing. It is fun as a local member to provide names, dates, and facts to their “mission lore” of golden investigators, healings, and the occasional miracle.

  23. Sharee Hughes says:

    Here’s a story for you. My grand-nephew just returned from a mission to Costa Rica. While there he taught the gospel to a drug Lord, who had found a Book of Mormon, read it, and was interested. He declined baptism, though, saying if he joined the Church he would be killed. Of ourse, he would also have had to give up his livelihood.

  24. There was also the story about the elders who accepted a dinner invite against mission rules. The story goes that serving in a third world country, missionaries in that particular mission were forbidden to eat at investigators’ houses not just to keep from eating the food of the poor, but primarily to protect the health of the missionaries. After a great visit with an older lady who was taking the lessons, and after noting the clean dishes on the shelves in the small room, the elders decided to accept her invitation to dinner. After all, everything looked clean. After the meal, the elders offered to help clean up. The lady declined, saying it was no trouble, and placed all their dishes on the ground, where her dogs promptly licked them clean. Then, she placed the “clean” dishes back on the shelves. Moral: obey the mission rules.

    I was serving in wealthy Western Europe when I heard that — I have no idea how it got to us.

  25. We had the laundromat story in Virginia in the mid-80’s. Also the cat story, though I had a member of the Virginia Beach 2nd Ward who swore up and down that that story happened to he and his companion, so there’s that. (Not that I believe him, exactly, but these things do have to come from somewhere, right?)

    There was also a mission president prior to mine who had come up with a quarter-inch-thick addendum to the “white bible” rules (there was one in one of the apartments I was in); not coincidentally, during his tenure there was also an underground group of missionaries who tried to break most of those rules. I had a DL in my first area who had a photo of he and some of that group who had gone to (and had backstage passes to, thanks to an elder who was related to Randy Bachman) a Van Halen concert in Norfolk–about six elders hanging out backstage with Alex and Eddie (DLR was presumably off getting high).

  26. Our mission stories were mostly legendary feats of impiety that had supposedly happened in the era before our current mission president and legendary feats of conversion that had also happened at some remove in time and space from whoever was telling the story.

    And then stories about one missionary’s stakhanovite work ethic, rigid rule adherence, and indifference to human needs, most of which were absolutely true. I personally verified a number of them.

  27. I served in Germany, and I heard it was a Japanese laundromat…..

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