English Classes

Just a brief post. In 1884, Mormon missionaries in Mexico were using English classes as a proselytizing tool. By charging for the classes the missionaries were also able to cover some of their expenses.

Fast forward. In the late 1930s the missionaries in Argentina, where the Church was new and just moving out of the German-speaking colony in which it originally came to the country, LDS missionaries also offered English classes.

Fast forward again to the mid 1970’s when the Church was still in its first decade in Bolivia the missionaries often would offer English classes as a proselytizing technique.

Missionary cultures live when one missionary shares them with another and they are the points of initial encounter for most Latter-day Saints when they join the Church. On the one hand teaching English would seem an obvious thing for the Elders to do, since they were almost entirely from the United States, they spoke English, and the language was in demand because of the English empire and then the growth of U.S. power. On the other hand it is probably a practice that was invented somewhere as the Church moved into Latin America and then became part of the standard repertoire.

It was not just English. In Argentina the missionaries formed a basketball team to compete in local leagues, once again drawing on their skills as U.S. Americans. Basketball was a uniquely North American sport at a time when soccer was developing in the space of inter-ethnic encounters in immigrant Argentina; soccer would soon become one of the main idioms of Argentine nationalism. In Bolivia a different twist took place, when four Anglo-American missionaries recorded an album of Bolivian folklore with their distinctive English accents and musical cultures, even though they used local instruments and musical forms.

Somehow, Mormon missionary efforts became like an arm of the U.S. consulate in the teaching and sharing of the national culture and not just Mormonism. But how did this happen?

Teaching English, and the reliance on the missionaries’ foreign-ness as US citizens, could have been invented as a technique in 1880’s Mexico and then diffused. People with experience in the Mexican mission opened the Argentine mission, and from there one can track personnel in the opening of the other Latin American missions. Diffusion is plausible. But I do not know. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to know since this almost systematic conjoining of US culture with religion is something that distinguishes Mormons from most other missionary efforts.


  1. Bro. Jones says:

    Nevertheless, it would be interesting to know since this almost systematic conjoining of US culture with religion is something that distinguishes Mormons from most other missionary efforts.

    Man, you think we’re ethnocentric. When I was in India and visited a Pentacostal church service, they had the same electric organ, electric guitars, and rock soundtrack that they were using in the States. Granted, not all Christians share my view that rock music isn’t necessarily the best sacred music, but there was something especially odd about seeing Indian folks sing “There’s Dancing and Healing in the Blood of The Lamb” at the top of their lungs, with a rock soundtrack. (In English.)

    Still, I do see that the examples mentioned in your post differ very much from the “traditional” Catholic model, where priests would learn local languages and traditions to inform their proselyting.

  2. English classes offered by Mormon missionaries in Austria c.1996 represented one of the biggest challenges of my mission: to watch as American elders taught people to butcher the English language. “Repeat after me: ‘water’ – ‘waaaderrr.'” That and the “Learn English” flyers we distributed with American flags all over them.

    Nails on a blackboard.

    All my attempts to introduce a bit of British were sadly rebuffed. Angry inside, I turned to drink and prostitutes.

  3. In France in the early 1980s, our English classes were not looked upon in any sense as imposing American-ness as a facet of the gospel — our very popular classes were considered a service, and were given at the request of French families who wanted their kids to have a chance to practice conversation beyond what they got in school, and lots of working people who asked if they could join the classes when they heard about them. (Then we changed mission presidents, and the new guy cancelled all service projects, unless the recipients were already investigators.)

    I’m not sure English and basketball (and baseball in early Japanese mission, and embroidering pillowcases in the early 20th century South Pacific missions) are cases of missionaries deliberately “sharing the national culture” so much as offering the only arts and skills the missionaries knew. They could only offer what they had.

    Is there supposed to be some kind of missionary Prime Directive that prevents interference in the local culture?

  4. I served in Santiago, Chile from 1998 to 2000. Of the six areas I served in, there were three where I regularly taught English classes.

    Rather than being our idea, in every case it was something that investigators to the Church requested. Sometimes, we would be teaching an investigator and, halfway through the second discussion, he or she would ask “When am I going to learn English?”

    In other words, much of the time Chileans wanted to be around us not for religious reasons but cultural reasons. We would turn it around by offering English classes in addition to missionary discussions.

  5. four Anglo-American missionaries recorded an album of Bolivian folklore

    Holy cow would I love to hear that.

  6. Mark Brown says:

    Susan M.,

    You should check out Los Mormon Boys.

    (Scroll down for picturey goodness.)

  7. Mark Brown says:

    The Deseret News review for the documentary about Los Mormon Boys contains this:

    For example, one former member talked about the challenge to be as spiritual in the band as they would be doing normal missionary work.

    “It’s a little tough to be playing ‘Tequila’ in an enthusiastic manner,” he said. “It’s not like singing a hymn.”

  8. Peter LLC says:

    Angry inside, I turned to drink and prostitutes.

    As for me, I turned to bootleg CDs and Schoko & Keks.

    Ronan’s on to something, however–native speakers do not make good teachers by virtue of their native tongue. Even then I was embarassed by our amateurish attempts to teach English with essentially no preparation and even less of a clue.

    On the other hand, we did join a 3-on-3 basketball leaque in one area and did quite well. 8)

  9. CS Eric says:

    English classes can sometimes be effective. It was a series of English classes in Korea that introduced my brother’s mission president, Rhee Ho-Nam, to the Church. And it was an English class that led to one of my best baptisms. He was a tag-along to the classes with a friend that I had high hopes for. The friend’s interest in the Church never went anywhere, but the tag-along really caught the fire–probably the best “golden contact” I had. I almost felt guilty when I baptised him, like I didn’t have the faith in him that he could really change his life around. It is one of the few times in my life when I have been very, very glad that I was wrong.

  10. No One in Particular says:

    I think I’ve mentioned it before in thread or two a year or more back, but English is also pushed by the Church and leaders (at least here in Central America) as the ‘Language of the Restoration,’ valuable for reading modern scripture in their ‘original language’ and for understanding the teaching and training of the Brethren in its original form. I’ve also heard the Church trains at least some local employees in English.

    I have strongly conflicted feelings about the whole situation.

    More directly germane to the questions posed in the original post, I can tell you that in my mission (also here in Central America, 2002-4) English classes developed as often as not as a result of both members and non-members (even strangers on the street!) requesting it. I always treated it more as a community service than a proselyting technique, and limited the time I spent on it. I can also say that in at least one area it had the very positive effect of providing very positive publicity for the church and the missionaries themselves- probably because we focused on kids and did it in a public library. After a few weeks of that, town officials and kids’ parents would stop us in the street to thank us and chat about what we were doing there, etc.

    PS We had only slightly less success teaching adolescents to play chess in the same area. One of my pupils told me a couple years ago that she took second in a women’s chess competition at the major public university here. Apparently we taught chess better than we taught English.

  11. The Church still has an English class program called the Daily Dose.

  12. Norbert says:

    Back in the day (1960s), Mormon missionaries fielded competitive semi-pro basketball teams across Europe. I think there were also missionary choirs in Britain that were well received. I played volleyball for several clubs on my mission, which was totally against the rules I’m afraid, but we picked up loads of teaches as a result. If done correctly, it’s what Ardis says — a chance to share of yourself.

  13. Julie M. Smith says:

    My dh taught English as a missionary in Japan in the early 90s. It was seen as one of the few ways to get people interested in speaking with the missionaries.

  14. #8 What is in an erdbeer?

  15. Erdbeer: Food of the Gods (strawberry)

  16. Erd-beer, lit. Earth-berry (or “terrestrial berry”) = Strawberry.

    Him-beer, lit. Heaven-berry = (or “celestial berry”) = Raspberry.

    I think the latter is closer to Food of the Gods. Meanwhile, Strawberries are the Food of Ministering Angels, at best.

  17. Both sound good to me!

  18. Gerald Smith says:

    My mission in Bolivia 1978-80 included giving English classes in certain areas. I recall our zone playing the high school basketball team in Potosi twice. The first time, we were trounced, as they literally ran us into the ground. We learned for the second game and went to a passing game, which helped us win.

    Service in my last area of Yacuiba included wading through the flooded streets and helping people take their stuff to higher ground.

    As for music, it isn’t always English-centric. One of the big Bolivian music groups of the 1970s was called Rama Nueve (Branch Nine) from the La Paz area. I became good friends with a couple of the former members in the early 1980s when they moved to the States.

  19. On my mission, we had requests to teach English. People wanted to learn it for the international prestige that the language carries.

    We taught English classes, laced with Gospel thoughts and asides. (For example, I taught my students about the gifts of the Spirit and that Heavenly Father can bless us in learning languages. We would always begin with a prayer.) We baptized a family who is now sealed.

    I don’t have a problem with missionaries teaching English, but they had better be spending more time trying to speak the language of the people among whom they serve. English is not a requirement for salvation, but “every man shall hear the fulness of the gospel in his own tongue” seems to be a charge to the missionaries.

    I think we should look at it as an opportunity to serve the community, and, since they are missionaries, it is their prerogative to include Gospel insights.

  20. We taught classes on how to convert from metric to Imperial measurements.

  21. I served in Santiago, Chile from 1998 to 2000. Of the six areas I served in, there were three where I regularly taught English classes.

    I served a bit further south, and they weren’t interested in English, just in hoops.

    queuno, the former starting power forward for the Naval team

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