Mission Reading Rules

I received a question recently from a young man at a prestigious university:

He said he is 19 years old, a recent convert and prospective missionary.

He expressed an interest in the historical context of the “you can only read the Scriptures, Jesus the Christ, etc” rule for missionaries. How did it start? What was happening that Church leaders decided it was necessary?

Also, he wanted to know, in peoples’ experiences, how strictly is this rule enforced? The example he gave was reading CS Lewis. So, for example, how much would reading the Screwtape Letters be frowned upon?

This was my response (slightly edited):

First, congratulations on your conversion and prospective mission! How exciting that must be.

The types of rules limiting outside reading you speak of are of relatively recent vintage, and the list of acceptable readings has changed over time. When I served my mission to Colorado in the late seventies, there was a “Missionary Reference Library,” which, as I recall, consisted of Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Discourses of Brigham Young, Gospel Doctrine, Jesus the Christ, Articles of Faith, Doctrines of Salvation, Miracle of Forgiveness, maybe A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, and perhaps one or two others I’m forgetting. I don’t recall whether we were supposed to limit our non-scripture reading to that set, but there may have been such a rule in place. If there was, I conveniently ignored the rule. I discuss this a little bit at p. 12 of my In Memoriam piece on Hugh Nibley that was published in Sunstone, which you can read here:

A few thoughts:

1. Your number one reading is going to need to be the scriptures. That should be a given.

2. I haven’t seen a scholarly treatment of the development of these missionary reading restrictions. If I think of it, I’ll blog on the subject and see if I can find out any more information for you. (I have to go to church soon.)

3. I suspect that, as is often the case, this is a lowest common denominator rule, as you rightly guessed. It is intended for the idiot kid who would read the swimsuit issue of SI and that sort of literature, as you say.

4. I may well get into trouble for saying this, but in the case of a mature and serious young man such as yourslf, I would say not to take such a rule too seriously. I feel quite confident that at least some general authorities would have no problem with a missionary reading The Screwtape Letters, per your example. If you are reading literature of that nature, it really shouldn’t be an issue.

Just my opinion, of course.

How would you have responded to the question? What are your experiences, perspectives, advice on this topic?


  1. Very interesting. I did a history of the “Missionary Library” a bit ago, which is one aspect of this. The other part is the proscription, which if I had to guess probably first came to be with the “white handbook” and the Missionary Guide. Missionaries from the 1930’s and 1940’s had significant freedoms in what they did (this was the period of the fist centralized missionary guides, e.g., here and here).

    there were those persistent rumors about why missionaries shouldn’t read The Miracle of Forgiveness, as well as the archatypal missionary obsessed with anti-Mormon literature. But it feels like a lot of the other stuff in the “White Handbook.” Just trying to manage irresponsible kids.

  2. Nick Literski says:

    My mission president (85-87) gave up trying to get me to limit my reading to the prescribed books. I was too busy reading Nibley, etc. We finally compromised, with me agreeing to “at least” read the prescribed personal study plan (which consisted of the scriptures and “Missionary Library” of the time), and then I could read whatever I wanted to on Mormonism.

  3. Aaron Brown says:

    If I had followed the rules, I wouldn’t have read _El Hombre En Busca De Dios_ and other assorted JDub treasures, and I’m sure I’d be the poorer for it.


  4. My mission president never made a big issue out of this rule. I read all the Missionary Library just so I could say I had exhausted the approved books, then I read whatever else I could get my hands on in my extra hours. The University of Florida institude building had a pretty excellent gospel library which I made heavy use of.

    I like your advice. As you said, if it is taken as a given that the scriptures will be your number one focus, I think that solves most potential problems.

  5. Perhaps there are restrictions because a missionary simply shouldn’t have the time to do so much discretionary reading? On my mission, with the exception of p-day, there was only about an hour each day in the schedule to read (my companions and I usually skipped the Missionary Guide in favor of getting a full hour of reading time). Scriptures took up most of that time and I managed to get through Jesus the Christ and a couple of other books too. But there’s no way I could have done any more reading and been faithful to the schedule.

  6. P.S. In hindsight I wish I had been able to read more– I think it would have made me a better missionary and person. I suppose like the approved reading lists, the schedule could also be considered a “lowest common denominator rule.” But I was scared to death that if I strayed from it some poor investigator would be lost due to my unrighteousness!

  7. CS Eric says:

    I served in Korea about the same time Kevin did in Colorado. My mission president was strict about a lot of things, but I don’t remember anything about restricting what we could read. My folks shipped me a couple of Nibley’s books–his “On the Timely and Timeless” came slightly damaged as the peanut butter that was in the same box melted on the trip over. Didn’t affect the pages,though, just the cover.

    Part of it could be that I’d read the entire Bible twice while there, so maybe the president gave me a break. I just don’t remember it being any sort of big deal at all.

  8. sister blah 2 says:

    Interesting post, Kevin. Did you mean Mormon Doctrine, or is there actually a book called Gospel Doctrine? I was listening to a talk once by John Welch (the guy who first stumbled on the idea of chiasmus in the BoM), and he was saying that there was a great theology school in the area of his mission. So he used all of every P-day to go down there to study and listen to lectures, much to the chagrin of his not-so-interested jr companion. Haha. Simultaneously lazy and academic as I am, I can really sympathize with both sides of that companionship!

  9. I never really understood this rule until a visiting GA to our mission warned that too many missionaries “study too much.” He went on to explain that reading is all fine and dandy, but that’s not what missionaries are ultimately called to do.

    Outside of the scriptures, I read Jesus the Christ (approved) and The Great APostasy (not approved).

  10. sister, Gospel Doctrine = JFS, published in the 1910’s as a priesthood manual and has remained popular. Mormon Doctrine = BRM, fortunately never promoted as a manual.

  11. My second mission president decided that since all of other missionaries played never-ending volleyball on p-day and I hated the game that I was allowed to read on p-day. I had to do something while I sat on the side-lines. The gospel library was getting old, so I begged for an expansion of choices. He gave me a fair deal of leeway, just asking that I stick to topics relating to the gospel.

    I’d been so book-deprived that I inhaled everything I could. I read everything the local library had by C. S. Lewis. I read Brodie’s No Man Knows My History. And as many comparative religion books as I could get my hands on. It was glorious, glorious freedom.

  12. Jonathan Green says:

    A library card in every city.

  13. Steve Evans says:

    I read voraciously, and talked to my MP about it. Once I’d gone through the missionary library and the History of the Church volumes, I turned to French literature. Reading Germinal was a great eye-opener.

  14. I think the appropriate person to ask this question of is your Mission President.

    The scriptures are the main thing that need to be read, even repeatedly. I also read the entire missionary library, including Jesus the Christ twice. I also read the entire Missionary Guide.

    Then an investigator found several copies of “Lectures on Faith” in a used book shop and he gave me a copy. So I read that. My companion at the time tried to give me grief about it not being on the list so I asked my Mission President and he said it was okay. (Ticked my companion off cause he was always trying get away with major rule breaking and I wouldn’t let him).

    I know that as late as the mid 70′ missionaries were allowed to read pretty much what they wished. My father on his mission belonged to the “Savage” Zone, based on the Doc Savage dime back Westerns, which everybody in the Zone read.

    So I think I understand why they decided to come out with an approved list of books. The appropriate way to approach it is consider that the General Authorities think these books on the are ones that should be read by missionaries. Therefor you should start there. If you get through all of them, then I think further study is fine under the direction of your mission president.

  15. sister blah 2 says:

    Speaking of French literature, if anyone is ever insane enough to make me a mission president (not just talking about the gender here), I’m *totally* going to let my missionaries read Le Petit Prince.

    Since we believe that all truth is part of the Truth and we seek after all good things, it’d be kinda cool if we instituted a process like the Catholics have for cannonizing saints, except we cannonize great works of art and literature.

    Ok those are my idées wackys du jour.

  16. sister blah 2 says:

    oops, I suppose that should be “idées wackyes du jour”

  17. My second mission President and I had an agreement that I could read literature outside of the mission library, but he encouraged me to not flaunt such to all the other missionaries; rather, it was a case by case decision that he made based on whether or not he felt that reading outside literature was appropriate for the individual missionary. In any event, he knew what I was up to, but he still wanted my time heavily invested in the scriptures.

    So if this person’s mission president is as nice and understanding as mine, here is my recommendation for outside literature and study:

    Buy a good Greek and Hebrew grammar (perhaps Mastronarde and Lambdin, respectively) as well as the Reader’s Hebrew Bible and USBGNT4, and maybe a lexicon for each language too.

  18. Matt W. says:

    In my mission, there was an Og Mandino Book (greatest salesman in the world part 2, I believe) that was heavily passed around. Also, “drawing on the powers of heaven” and every other grant von harrison book. Other than that, I read the local newspaper for language study, and tried to focus on the scriptures (I read the new testament once, the D&C once, the POGP once, and read up to chonicles of the OT(skimmed the rest), the rest of the time I read the Book of Mormon). I did read Jesus the Christ for the first time there, and all the other approved books.

    I never listened to the tapes that came with the missionary guide.

    I did buy and read some of a book on how to get a divorce/annullment in the philippines.

    And all the normal anti-mormon stuff and pro-seventh day adventist stuff you get on a mission.

    For me, it sort of boiled down to who my companion was and what we had time for. So much of my mission was making compromises with my companions…

  19. Kevin Barney says:

    My mission actually had some required reading that wasn’t on the general list: Alvin Dyer’s The Challenge and How to Win Friends and Influence People. As I recall the mission was out of the first one when I came in, so I neither acquired nor read it, but I think I read the second one, or at least parts of it.

  20. On my mission I read all kinds of gospel books. We would get them from local members and incorporate them into whatever study plan we were doing for Comp study.

    Our mission president was in the habit of allowing missionaries to borrow books from his personal collection as well.

    The only real issue I can see with bring your own mini library is the weight factor with your luggage.

  21. Oh,

    I also read tons and tons of anti-stuff handed to me by local people and missionaries.

  22. I read the missionary library twice and all of the copies of the Ensign in my apartments before I finally asked the mission president for more reading material. He gave me several biographies of Church presidents to read. On the sly I also read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in the foreign language I learned for my mission. I would have gone crazy without more reading material. Beyond this I read the Book of Mormon almost two dozen times, the Bible twice, and the D&C and Pearl of Great Price a couple of times on my mission. I would get up a half an hour early to read more, I read at all meals we ate at home, in the bathroom, and on p-days if we didn’t go do anything fun. Plus, I had several companions that got fairly sick (or sick of missionary work, I’m not sure) for a few days, so I had nothing to do but read and nap.

    I think it’s unfortunate the Church doesn’t allow more reading options for missionaries. Some of the classics of literature to broaden their minds and allow a little down time. To be read on p-days and perhaps before bed. I would have loved something like that.

  23. BruceC says:

    I read Les Miserables and A brief History of Time on my mission. They were sitting the shelf of the mission apartment and I had a sick companion I had to stay with. Later I heard a rumor that some GA said that Les Miserables was the closest book to scripture that wasn’t actual scripture. I never found out if the rumor was true.

  24. call me Ishmael says:

    On that same note, might I ask a related question?

    I am leaving on a mission in June to Hungary. Since middle school, I have studied languages that have been “in demand,” shall we say. I am fluent in Persian, Pashto, and Arabic and functionally proficient in Hmong and Sorani (Iraqi Kurdish). My current post-mission plans are to work as a gov’t contractor or maybe as a freelancer to put myself through college, which I have not yet begun. So, I wonder, how much leeway might I have in maintaining my skills? I basically know that I need to read, write, speak, and if possible, hear the language in question about every two months. I suppose reading the scriptures in the language in question would be okay, but what about Kurdish, where there are no church publications whatsoever (and if there were they would be in the dialect of Turkey most likely, which has important differences from what I know). Or Pashto, where we have some basic (and outdated, and poorly written) curriculum, but copies of even the new testament are hard to come by. By way of miracle, I have one, but would I be allowed to bring it? Lots of questions.

    My college plans revolve around graduate mathematics. I just got involved with group theory and topology, and my dad (a nonmember) wants to see me do more with that on my mission. I’ve told him I would probably be better off just reviewing mentally on occasion. Of course, that kind of maths can be done on with a pen and paper (or napkin) in my copious free seconds, but I digress.

    I also know some (literary) Esperanto, but frankly don’t care if I lose that one. Maybe I’ll run into some speakers of it in Hungary. Ought to be interesting.

    On a side note, I didn’t have a really involved father figure growing up (I grew up in a rather broken nonmember home, and joined the church when I was sixteen). Consequently, I actually never learned how to ride a bike. I have been told that the mission, providentially, does not use bikes. Can anyone confirm?

    On a more general note, did anyone else have any kind of skills that you fell out of practice on during your mission? Did you take some college and come back utterly lost? Was it frustrating? I intend to keep my journals in shorthand, so I can keep that skill up. Playing piano will be almost a given and, perhaps, a burden at times. Let’s see, um, that’s about it I guess. Sorry for the long post.

    (I’ve been a a lurker here for a few years, in case you’re wondering (And yes, I am a Dialogue subscriber; that particular reading might have to be dropped). I’ve made other posts before under my real name but thought I would be better off going under a pseudonym for this.)

  25. cmI (24),

    I availed myself of the French tapes at the library prior to the dispensation from on high that I could read and never felt a moment’s guilt for it. Language is so useful in the missionary field. (I have no talent in languages whatsoever, by the by, but it was fun keeping up my mediocre skills.)

    Perhaps you could bring an MP3 player with the languages you want to keep fresh preloaded onto it.

    So Ish, you feel that you need to be anonymous for this question? Why?

  26. Yet Another John says:

    I read the standard works, Jesus the Christ, the Articles of Faith, the lectures on faith, and a couple of others I don’t recall. I really don’t remember having much time to read, what with everything else we were doing. And I don’t feel I was particularly deprived, either.

    As a side note, my future brother-in-law joined the condensed book of the month (remember those?) club. He had one huge suitcase full of books when he came home.

  27. CMI, I would get an mp3 player chock full of material in the languages you are interested in.

  28. Mark B. says:

    As to skills lost during the two years of a mission: I never came close to being able to slam dunk a basketball afterwards, but I had been tantalizing close before.

    As to mental things: I returned to a semester at college that was two weeks old, and, with a light load, had no difficulty getting back into it.

    My father returned from his mission, got married, honeymooned, moved to Pasadena and began his sophomore year at CalTech, all in the space of about 3 weeks. (Don’t try this at home, either, folks–but my parents will celebrate 59 years this September.) I don’t remember his telling me how he did that first semester back, but he did manage to graduate and was admitted to the PhD program in chemistry three years later.

  29. I guess if a missionary is going to serve the Lord and bring the gospel to the people, (s)he won’t be concerned about rules like the reading rules.

    But, if a missionary is more concerned about themself and their post-mission life, no amount of rules will stop them from doing what they want anyway.

  30. For a while they gave me permission to read anything, and then they’d wheel me out to battle anti-Mormon ministers, preachers, etc. I read an awful lot of anti-Mormon material on my mission. In retrospect, I don’t think it was worth it.

    I personally would read devotional works like CS Lewis or similar, but I don’t know that I’d expend much energy reading the anti- stuff. it’s distracting from Jesus and goodness and ultimately frames the debate in a rather silly way.

  31. NoCoolName_Tom says:

    I would echo many of the comments so far: the rules are there to keep missionaries from wasting time on reading things that would not help your spiritual growth. I was not aware that mission reading was limited to the Missionary Library until I told my Mission President that I had finished reading B.H. Robert’s “Comprehensive History” and a number of other books I had picked up from the local ward cleaning out its library.

    If you feel that the books you wish to read will improve your mission and yourself I would say to read them.

  32. Researcher says:


    I’ve never met a missionary, myself included, who had a problem returning to academics. Usually it is very maturing and I know I did some of my best work after returning from my mission.

    Learning to ride a bike is not a big deal. However, my BIL did drive at some risk to himself and the Hungarian people.

    I don’t know what the opportunities to speak other languages will be in Hungary, since it is rather ethnically pure (with about 2 percent Gypsy and a little smidgen of other mostly Eastern Europeans).

    I’m sure you realize that Hungarian is one of the most difficult languages to learn with scads of different tenses and that once you’ve learned Hungarian, you can probably learn anything else?

    Also: if you are interested in translating, there are things that you can learn as a missionary that would be hard to learn elsewhere. How to live with a variety of people. How to gauge people’s needs. How to resolve conflicts. How to understand humor in a different culture. How to calm a tense situation. The experience of going from knowing a language to being fluent in a language. How to start to merge into a different culture.

    Notice I said that you “can” learn these things; some missionaries do themselves the disservice of resisting them their whole mission.

    Congrats on your mission call and best wishes.

    And to return from the threadjack: I served under two mission presidents. One was more liberal than the other as far as reading was concerned.

  33. I would guess (with no real basis) that one reason for the missionary reading restrictions is to help prevent missionaries from getting too preoccupied with deep doctrine, especially narrow perspectives or so-called “gospel hobbies.” It’s kind of a way of correlating what will ultimately get taught to investigators.

    I’m ambivalent about such a goal. I personally think that unrestricted reading could really broaden a missionary’s perspective; but alternatively, reading the “wrong” materials could further entrench a provincial, anti-intellectual view of the church for some people. For example, I think it could be unfortunate for an eager, unquestioning missionary to get ahold of one of the old books that attempt to expound the curse of Cain.

    On my mission, I was generally aware of the reading restrictions, but I don’t remember the mission president ever mentioning them. I read foreign language literature without even thinking twice — probably because I viewed it as language study. I also listened to a few talks on tape that my companions had, like Truman Madsen’s Joseph Smith presentations, and I even had my parents send a book to help me study Isaiah.

  34. For the first part of my mission I read through all the books in the missionary library multiple times. But as time went on I found myself more and more just reading the scriptures.

    The scriptures are by far the richest source of spiritual understanding and insight. If I were asked would I prefer that missionaries have free rein to read whatever books they want or that reading be restricted to solely the scriptures, I’d go with just the scriptures.

  35. Good to hear all of the francophones here (I served in Bordeaux). Sister Blah 2 (15) – As a part of our language study, my mission president and his wife had an informal list of suggestions, including Le Petit Prince, as well as audio aids, like Assimil. I would recommend them, too.

    Perhaps this will sound a little old fashioned, but I was a firm believer that obedience (including to the mission rules, especially those that we don’t quite understand) was a key part to receiving the Spirit in missionary work. Rather than turn me into a robot, I thought it helped me to be humble and confident enough to rely on the power of the Spirit and submit to its promptings. Also, if there was a rule I didn’t understand, and I followed it anyway, one could consider that blind obedience. I felt, however, that if there was a rule I didn’t understand (or even proudly thinking I did understand – hey, I was 19 yrs old – I knew everything, right?), and I didn’t follow it, I would be engaging in blind disobedience. With regards to full-time missionary work, I always felt like blind obedience was better than blind disobedience. After all, I had been commissioned, and I was an agent of the church.

    To the meat of the question, I agree that the scriptures should be the primary text for all missionaries and the key portion of their daily study. I also agree that the currently stated “missionary library” should be read first. I would run any other books that don’t clearly fit within the mission rules by the mission president. My mission may have been the only time in my life where I would have the opportunity to fully consecrate myself to the Lord’s service. This seemed like a small sacrifice to make for this brief but important time in my life.

    I imagine that at least one of the purposes of limiting the library is to keep missionaries focused on their message and core doctrines of the gospel. It may have something to do with trying to help missionaries to “treasure up in [their] minds continually the words of life” so that, as the scripture promises, they would have given to them “in the very hour that portion that shall be meted unto every man” (D&C 84:85). Perhaps it is also an attempt by current leaders to help missionaries follow the counsel of Joseph Smith:

    Oh, ye elders of Israel, hearken to my voice; and when you are sent into the world to preach, tell those things you are sent to tell; preach and cry aloud, “Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand; repent and believe the Gospel.” Declare the first principles, and let mysteries alone, lest ye be overthrown. Never meddle with the visions of beasts and subjects you do not understand. (TPJS, 292)

    While most missionaries probably looked forward to reading it the least, one of my favorite books to read on my mission was Gospel Principles, for the simple reason that I felt it was, for the most part, profoundly simple and pure. I am a firm believer that the Spirit testifies to pure doctrine more powerfully.

    Finally, I actually never had time to read other books outside the library, as I barely finished the missionary library books by the end of my mission. Granted, I am a more methodical reader when it comes to gospel texts. But I was a little surprised sometimes to hear how much reading time other missionaries had.

    Just some thoughts. Sorry for the length.

  36. As J.’s post reflects, the missionary library has been shrinking over time, and we’re also seeing shorter books. We’re now down to four books (one long, three short): Jesus the Christ, Our Heritage (150 pages), Our Search for Happiness (125 pages), and True to the Faith (190 pages).

  37. Matt Thurston says:

    Like Steve (#13), after the standard works and Jesus the Christ (which I remember loving), I read a lot of Chinese fiction during my mission. Started with Pearl Buck novels (The Good Earth, then two or three others you’ve never heard of), and then moved on to Chinese and English translations of some of the great Chinese novels.

    I also remember reading The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls by Hemingway, of all things, simply because two old, faded paperbacks were on the book shelf of one of my missionary apartments, left behind by some long-ago missionary.

  38. John Withers says:

    After learning at the MTC that we were restricted to the Missionary Library, I asked one of our instructors there about that, and he said that it was all about the luggage weight.

    As a result, I never really worried about reading other things. Especially after one of the APs in my first zone conference talked about what a great book “Drawing on the Powers of Heaven” was (not part of the Missionary Library). I subsequently read and hated it. But I read and enjoyed a lot of other books that weren’t in The Library. I don’t remember our MP ever talking about what we should and shouldn’t read. It was mostly about not wearing green pants with him.

    I was never really clear on approved music, either. From what I saw, anything religious was OK, which included Amy Grant-ish things and anything instrumental, such as George Winston, Kenny G, or Joe Satriani.

  39. Jami (11) – Wow! Reading Brodie on your mission must have been interesting. I imagine you would be the poster child for what general authorities would not like missionaries reading on their missions. :)

    To be honest, though, I almost wish that there was someone in France that actually cared enough to read Brodie. Even some countercult merde – pardon my French – would have been a welcome start. (Don’t get me wrong – I loved France, loved the people – just didn’t find too many people who cared for religion at all).

  40. Does anyone know of any posts in the bloggernacle about apocryphal articles circulating around missions (ie, the “covenanting letter,” Cleon Skousen’s view of the atonement, etc.)?

  41. sister blah 2 says:

    “pardon my French”

    literally! LOL

  42. Re 40, Mission Garbage–Part I

    Caution: One will find various posts on the web purporting to be Part II of this series, but they’re of questionable authenticity.

  43. “Cleon Skousen’s view of the atonement”

    I read that one, only had 1/2 the talk available though.

    There was also Alvin Dyer’s talk about why Ephraim is being gathered first.

  44. Matt Thurston says:

    JT (#40), reading Cleon Skousen’s view of the atonement on my mission made the atonement come alive for me for the very first time. Whether apocryphal or not, for the next ten years my testimony of the atonement was based on Skousen’s explanation.

    But yes, I encountered it on my mission in 1989. One of four guys in my apartment got it from someone else, probably another missionary serving somewhere else. I remember the four of us reading it together out loud, taking turns reading each page. We’d pause every now and then to discuss the ideas. We all kept saying “Wow!” and “Amazing!” and we all felt like we’d stumbled across something extremely important. Our souls burned with a feeling of eternal recognition. That p-day experience would probably make my Top 5 Mission Spiritual Experiences list.

    Later that day I photocopied that article at a local 7-11 and spent an hour or more transcribing parts by hand that didn’t photocopy clearly.

    We were 19, and we were seeking to understand the mysteries of the heavens. So it strikes me that we generally find what we are looking for, and the difference between apocryphal doctrine and accepted doctrine is a matter of opinion, at least in the realm of the ineffable.

    I’m interested to hear more about the background to Skousen’s article, and how and when it was circulated around missions, so please share anything you know about it.

  45. Aaron Brown says:

    JT, there never was a Part II or Part III of my “Mission Garbage” series. That’s unfortunate, since Skousen’s “the Atonement” and that screed about Catholic nuns having sex with priests and aborting their babies, really did (and do) deserve their own posts.

    Hi John W.


  46. Wait, Ender’s Game isn’t on the list of approved reading? No wonder my greenie’s Spanish didn’t improve until after he finished it.

  47. 39. I would NOT recommend Brodie to anyone on a mission. Read it before, read it after, but I found during to be disturbing. In the podunk town I was in during the pre-internet era, I had almost no resources available to resolve my concerns. Some of the questions that were raised in 1990 were not resolved until this year when I read Rough Stone Rolling.

    Also I just remembered. There were a bunch of “Let’s Make a Deal” type books in circulation just prior to my arrival in the mission and my first mission president had outlawed them all. He had missionaries creating all sorts of bizarre covenants: “I’ll never say the word ‘fetch’ again or eat sugar and you, god, will give me six baptisms this month. Understood?” For some reason, the MP thought that was an inappropriate practice.

  48. Matt Thurston says:

    How or what is apocryphal about Skousen’s atonement talk? Just curious. I’m not sure I understand where the current doctrinally-accepted view of the atonement begins and ends.

    It’s been years since I’ve read Skousen’s talk, but what I remember is the DaVinci-Code-esque sense of journey and discovery, where it took Skousen like seven or eight years to find all of the clues in the scriptures to put the whole framework together.

  49. The Skousen talk provides a good example of what I was trying to get at in my post #33. I don’t think it’s healthy for missionaries to get the idea that the “one true” understanding of the atonement can only be found by spending seven years piecing together widely-dispersed scriptures into one glorious chain of prooftexts. This kind of mindset is likely to creep into a missionary’s teaching. By restricting the reading list, the church seems to be sending a message about what is acceptable doctrine that should be taught to investigators.

    One consequence of this policy is that it withholds resources from missionaries who want to learn more about context and history in order to better understand gospel doctrine. One benefit is that it discourages missionaries from elevating non-doctrinal sources to doctrinal status.

  50. Matt (44, 48) – I found Skousen’s talk quite interesting too. For all I know, when we pass into the next life and take a seat in the celestial seminary classes, we will all find out that W. Cleon Skousen was right on. I think his theory definitely gives some concrete examples of the why’s behind the atonement and the laws of justice.

    I describe it as apocryphal because he takes some mighty leaps from the scriptures he uses to make his conclusions. The conclusions are reasonable; they just don’t necessarily follow from the scriptures he uses as sources. For example, his reference to Alma 34 and the “bowels of mercy” as referring to all of the intelligences in Elohim’s system, while reasonable, does not necessarily follow from the text. While the same thing could be said of the statements of some general authorities, such as Joseph Fielding Smith or Bruce R. McConkie, these individuals had the added benefit of an apostolic or prophetic mantle that, at least in some people’s views, gave them greater weight on the doctrinal scale.

    In short, I think many of the assertions of the atonement talk fell in the realm of “we don’t know yet” (though maybe Skousen does).

    As for an official published source of the talk, the only one I am aware of is printed as an appendix to the author’s book The First Two Thousand Years.

  51. I am not sure what to make of Skousen. On my mission a couple of GA’s came from SLC and pulled all the Skousen books of the shelves and told our MP not to let the missionaries read them. We had a huge library and he was the only author singled out.

  52. AB (45) – I am casting my vote for a Part II and Part III.

  53. I believe it depends largely on the mission president. He and I had something of an understanding once he became aware that I’d read through the approved missionary library twice in the first 3 months of my mission, including much of the standard works. I read some C.S. Lewis, but I think the most un-missionary-like books I read were Mormon Enigma, DL’s Secret Ceremonies, and Mormon Murders. I also subscribed to the Journal of Book of
    Mormon Studies.

    [All this was in ’01-’03]

    Many of the missionaries with which I was acquainted probably should have spent more time in the standard works despite not really reading anything else anyway.

  54. Matt Thurston says:

    I found a “Response to the Address ‘The Real Meaning of the Atonement'” that details the authors concerns with Skousen’s atonement talk:


    In some ways I find Skousen closer to Joseph Smith than current general authorities. Like Smith, Skousen was a real seeker, even to some extent a “religion maker.” Skousen used the standard works like Smith used the Bible (and other sources) to mine the mysteries of God and/or as a jumping-off point for additional ideas. Today’s GA’s are more bureaucratic — standard-bearers who hold the line, or legislate and politic if change is needed.

    Skousen and Smith are like “jam bands,” where today’s GA’s seem more like “tribute bands,” dedicated to getting every single guitar note and drum beat to sound just right.

  55. Oh, and I almost forgot. A dozen or so missionaries were caught up and wowed by an article on tax evasion called “The Silver Bullet.” I received a copy and my interest turned to skepticism, and then to laughter.

  56. My companion’s Rolling Stone subscription probably was not part of the approved missionary library.

  57. Eric Russell says:

    What mission did all you people go to that you could sit around reading all the time? In my mission we proselytized, but maybe that was just us, I don’t know.

  58. #56 – You think? That made me laugh.

    I wrote a comment just as the server move was happening, and it got lost in cyberspace, so to summarize:

    I think there are lots of things that can be wonderful resources on a mission; I think there are lots of things that would be a waste of time on a mission. It it helps you understand better the basics outlined and taught in Preach My Gospel, great; if not, read them after your mission; if anti- in any way, ignore them on your mission and focus on deeper understanding of the basics.

    I’ve been off my mission for over 20 years, and I still learn as much from digging even deeper into the basics as I do from most things that are unique. I still read the unique stuff “religiously”, but I try to balance it with an equal amount of time in the basics.

  59. Eric: You probably spent your lunch and dinner time doing something useless like eating.

  60. Eric Russell says:

    Hodges, lunch was with the members and dinner was bread or cookies on the road as we walked, I kid you not.

  61. Uphill both ways, in the snow all year round . . . :)

  62. From Elder Benson currently serving a mission.
    The current mission library consists of Principals of the Gospel, Jesus the Christ, Our Heritage, and Our Search for Happiness. It depends on the mission president what else you are allowed to read. My MP teaches us correct principals and allows us to govern ourselves. This is usually interpreted as church lesson manuals and magazines. “Screwtape Letters” is a book I enjoyed greatly in high school and I love C.S. Lewis. Your two hours of study time a day are sacred and should not be used lightly. In a recent talk in Zone Conference one of the AP’s pointed out that there is good better and best. And we need to focus on the best. I love to read and I have found just studying the scriptures, Preach My Gospel and the other approved materials, and the Ensign I don’t have enough time to read anything else. My MP says, ” Stick with the best and you will be blessed.”
    Best of Luck,
    Elder Benson

  63. “today’s GA’s seem more like “tribute bands”

    Yeah, but have you heard their cover version of “Dream Weaver”? Its amazing…….

  64. Elder Benson (62): I don’t think http://www.bycommonconsent.com was on our mission reading list. Lucky you.

  65. Latter-day Guy says:

    I read RSR on my mission. It was wonderful.

    Your reading really depends on where you end up going. In Boston, the ward houses had wonderful libraries (not to mention supplementing with the local libraries) so I got to read a ton of great stuff.

    My recommendation would be to stay away from “Drawing on the Powers of Heaven” as you would from the plague. Ugh, I hated that thing.

    Also, if you are looking for bible helps, there are few books as valuable as 2 Raymond E Brown volumes: Introduction to the New Testament, and the Jerome Bible Commentary. Read them (as with all commentaries) with a smidgen of salt. (But, really, Ray Brown is a god among exegetes.)

  66. Skousen was very influential on me. Not so much because of his ideas on the atonement, which I am not so certain of as he is, but rather because it made me much more aware of the metaphysical views unique to Mormonism- and also pointed out that these “higher mysteries” can actually have application and connections to basic doctrines.

    In has given my conception of Godhood and existence greater concreteness, and has lead to a re-examination on my part of the meanings of basics such as the power of prayer, scripture reading and church attendence.

    However, I have known others for whom it has gone the other direction, and led them into an obsession with obscure mysteries instead of the foundational basics. So I can understand why GA’s might not want missionaries reading them.

  67. #62

    Articles of Faith by Talmage is no longer on the list?

  68. John Withers says:

    Hi Aaron!

  69. Sam Kitterman says:

    Having served my mission back in the mid-70’s, I read and studied what constituted the “Mission Library” five times both in English and German but was also introduced to Dialogue by a member in an American branch (in fact, wrote a letter which was published and find it amazing SLC never had my mission president question me about it) as well as CS Lewis and Tolkien.
    Clearly a missionary’s focus must be on teaching the Good Word but two other thoughts to consider, D&C 90:15 (“…and study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people.”) and Eccl. 12:12, “And further, by these, my son,…,much study is a weariness of the flesh”.

  70. I was in CA around 2000 and cruised through the Mission Library in about 6 months, and finished the Bible cover-to-cover by about the 10 month mark. I got bored with the books. I’d read the missionary library before coming on the mission – some of the books multiple times (we read some as a family instead of the scriptures *gasp*). Of course I kept reading the NT and BoM and read them both many times, but w/o a good context, the D&C seemed boring, unalive. I know Lowell Bennion would not like to hear this, but I couldn’t stand to read the OT again.

    So there I was: a voracious reader, and bored out of my gourd. In discussing w/ the MP, he asked me to get each book approved before I read it, but he really sucked at getting back to me. So I winged it and tried to keep it mainstream. Miracle of Forgiveness, McConkie’s Promised Messiah, PPPratt’s auto, Bio of JS by his Mother, Teachings of the Prophet JS, Jos F Smith’s short one about his mission to Hawaii, etc. etc.; I steered away from some that I was really interested in (Schindler’s bio of P. Rockwell, Brook’s on JDLee) by reading about more “acceptable” individuals like Jacob Hamblin. Obviously the history really interested me. I read some CSLewis and a couple other shorter pieces on OT/NT correlations that were written by non-Mormons, but I really stuck with the Mormon authors for the most part. Except for a bad transfer that including some by JKRowling and RJordan.

    Probably the most important one, to me, that I read that wasn’t “approved” was Callister’s “The Infinite Atonement.”

    And Eric, as to your snarky comment about actually working on your mission, we were out the door on-time everyday just like you were. I just didn’t sleep as much (I had a problem w/ waking early – crazy I know), and had many companions who flat-refused to do comp study. If only I could get by on as little sleep now . . .

  71. I just re-read this, and I’d like to apologize for *my* snarky tone. Also, when I said that I got bored with the books, I didn’t mean the scriptures, just the missionary library ones.

  72. My first MP said ship all the books home (except scriptures and missionary library of course). I obliged. Then I started acquiring more. One companion had a fit that I was reading a bible JST. He used the commitment pattern against me to no avail. He then spoke to the new MP. The new MP had to spend some time calming down my over-stressed companion (Drew, do you ever read these blogs?). Then, on his way our to play golf, the MP told me that any translation of the Bible was OK to read. (I never asked if the New World Translation counted.)

  73. Pemble says:

    While I loved reading new, interesting, and slightly “illegal” (as to the approved list) material, I did find that we taught what we studied. In other words, if we studied better ways to “bash” then we found ourselves bashing. But if we kept to the scriptures and discussions and other basics, the Lord seemed to put us in a more favorable position to find and teach people who were actually interested.

    My thoughts FWIW.

  74. Left Field says:

    I’m too lazy to get into the box that has my old mission manual, but as best I can recall, my mission library (NYC, 78-80) was the scriptures, Jesus the Christ, Articles of Faith, Marvelous Work, Story of the LDS, Miracle of Forgiveness, The Challenge (A.R. Dyer), and the mission manual. In theory, we were expected to read all of those books, and only those books. We were always asked in interviews if we had completed reading the mission library.

    Story of the LDS was out of print, and almost nobody had a copy, but I did manage to borrow one from the one elder in the mission who had one. In practice, you could get away with reading other church books as long as it didn’t interfere with reading the approved library, and you didn’t stray too far from the orthodox core. But secular reading was strongly frowned upon.

    I had a companion who loved to tell investigators all about the mission rules. If someone asked “Did you read X in the newspaper?” instead of just saying “No,” he would say, “No, we’re not allowed to read the newspaper.” I really couldn’t convince him of how bad that sounded. I have to wonder how many investigators are turned off by the idea that becoming a Mormon would mean that they have to follow missionary rules.

  75. I do not recall whether there was an approved reading list in my mission many years ago. I do recall reading every Spanish publication that I could get (including the local newspaper). That practice helped me learn the language. I like to think it made me a more effective missionary.

  76. SingleSpeed says:

    I never would have finished without my copy of The Catcher in the Rye.

  77. Lori Forsyth says:

    My contraband books were all by A.A. Milne–I think just “When We Were Very Young” and “Now We Are Six”, both poetry, but it could have been the Winnie the Pooh books, too. They were consoling in times of discouragement.

  78. Latter-day Guy says:

    #77, You are now my hero. Have you ever read the book The Tao of Pooh? It’s really interesting stuff.

  79. Sam Kitterman says:

    #75 I’d agree but the problem with German publications were that the local newspapers liked to have photographs that belonged in certain men’s magazines, e.g., “Lovely Ilse suntanning in the park”, etc. That’s when I bought a German version of “Lord of the Rings”. No photographs of Ilse….

  80. Sam,

    I can see how that would be a problem. Fortunately, it was not a problem years ago in Guatemala, as I recall.

  81. Sam Kitterman says:

    P.K. Local newspapers in the big cities of Southern Germany in the mid-70’s had no problem with pictures of Ilse and her friends…. Must be that European attitude regarding nudity and s**.

  82. Shederlaomach says:

    I have had missionaries over at my house on two separate occasions where they were looking at my bookcases of Mormon books. On these two occasions the missionaries said the same thing: “I can hardly wait to get back from my mission so I can study the Gospel.” They didn’t even see the irony of such a ridiculous statement. I personally can’t envision a time when it would be more appropriate and essential to study the Gospel than on a mission. I must disagree with Elder Benson’s MP who said, “read the best and then you’ll be blessed,” if he was referring to the current load of pablum that is the missionary approved reading list. With the exception of “Jesus The Christ” and the scriptures, the books the missionaries are allowed to read are bantam-weight works at best. The levels of ignorance among missionaries is, I’m sure, one of the major reasons that conversions and growth are stagnant in the church.