Notes on the history of missionary correspondence

I decided to look through some of the old missionary handbooks in my library to see if there were any antecedents to the no-phone-home policy that I experienced as a missionary. Beyond a few interesting bits that I had overlooked in the past (missionaries in the 1920s were required to have eight hours of missionary work a day, starting at 9:00 am), there was some material that is relevant, albeit far from comprehensive.

That same 1920s handbook (The Elders’ Manual) noted that missionaries were to write “immediate relations” regularly, but that other correspondence should be limited. “Much time is needlessly wasted in too frequent letter writing.” This sentiment was made more explicit in the first centrally produced handbook, which was in circulation in the 1930s through the 1950s:

Correspondence–You are advised to write once a week to father, mother and the family, but other correspondence both with those at home and in the mission field should be limited. Excessive letter writing consumes a great amount of valuable time and tends to keep a missionary from identifying himself with the place and people of his labors. Do not regret being forgotten while in the mission field. You are playing for a big stake—the approval of the Lord—and unessentials should not disturb you. [The Missionary’s Hand Book, pp. 25-26]

The only mention of telegraph or telephony in these handbooks was a directive to not hesitate to use them (telephony in only the latter) to contact the mission office in case of emergency. They did include handy information on the best way to get a low-cost message sent.

Unfortunately, while I have the subsequent decades’ pedagogical manuals for missionaries, they focus on what missionaries should teach, and not on any rules. I do, however, have a 1973 “white handbook,” which includes the following guidance in a section enumerating mission guidelines:

5. Write your parents once a week on preparation day.

6. Long experience has shown that it is not wise to telephone home or to talk by telephone to friends. [Missionary Handbook, pp. 11-12]

I imagine we could find some more data had I the resources of a good archive proximately. Still I think we might be able to draw a preliminary correlation between the earlier “don’t spend too much writing, because you will be distracted” to the “it is unwise to call home” language of the 1970s. From discussions on friends’ Facebook walls (and comments on JKC’s great post), it appears that the call home only during Christmas and Mother’s day policy was perhaps a feature introduced the 1980s or 1990s.

And a final note to say that while I think that the new mission communication policy is certainly a good idea, the historian in me mourns as a key archival source for mission life (correspondence) will now essentially vanish from this point forward. Also if you have a “white handbook” and you want it to have a good home, please let me know. People don’t keep them and so they are hard to come by. I have 1973 and 2006.


  1. I remember reading somewhere that young Mitt Romney while serving a mission called Ann (before she became Romney) weekly.

    I’ve wondered how the restrictions on family correspondence helps or hurts those who have encounter depression or anxiety while serving a mission?

  2. My great grandfather had stories serving his mission during WWII in the Central States mission when his parents were going to Chicago for something unrelated to his mission, and he was given permission to take a couple days off and leave his area to meet up with them and attend a show. They accidentally got tickets to a burlesque show, but I’m sure that part wasn’t mission president approved. But, at least for his mission, he was able to go see his parents, not just communicate with them.

  3. Kathryn Shirts says:

    My husband served a mission in Mexico from 1970-1972 and was allowed to phone home only at Christmas. They didn’t have phones so they had to go downtown to the telephone office to make their calls.

  4. My husband still has his white handbook ’78-80. I probably have my son’s somewhere ’01-’03 and ’06-’08 and of course very recent ’15-’17. I’m not sure they are getting rid of them but if there is something you want to see inside, I can send pictures. ;-)

  5. J. Stapley says:

    I know a missionary whose parents drove a car to their son in the Central States mission in the 1950s, and I met my dad in Europe a couple of times (with approval) in the 1990s. I think seeing parents who happen to be in the area has been up to mission president discretion throughout the 20th century. And the handbook from the 1930s to the 1950s actually encouraged missionaries to go see local shows and entertainment.

    A, that is a kind offer. I anyone were to scan their entire white handbooks, I would gratefully receive them!

  6. Left Field says:

    The 1973 edition of the white handbook was still in use during my 78-80 mission.

  7. I’ve got mine from mid-90s (copyright 1990). I’m not ready to give it up, but I’ll gladly scan it. I was a little surprised to see that the Mother’s Day/Christmas practice was not spelled out. Just an admonition not to call friends or family frequently.

    My brother served in Salt Lake. While our immediate family was from the east, we have lots of extended family in the SLC area. I was attending BYU and saw him several times. He even got permission to attend my wedding (which we planned to be on his preparation day).

  8. Geoff - Aus says:

    When I was on my mission 1968 to 70, my father was working for the church building programme covering the same area. I met him once I think.
    My district leader however had his girlfriend from california visit. They went off together for a week. I was not righteous enough to make DL.

  9. As a missionary in Ireland 1963 – 65, we were told to never call home for any reason. I followed that faithfully through my two year service, but Christmas day of 63 my girlfriend (later my wife of 42 years), did call me (at 6 am). It bouyed my spirits for a long time after. Calls from home can help!

  10. I predict this list may shrink drastically:

  11. Geoff, whenever I hear stories like that, I wonder logistically, how does that even work? How would you hide it from a multitude of missionaries and ward members, or get them all on board with covering for him? What does his companion do? Anyone who covers it up would end up in as much trouble as the AWOL missionary.

  12. I never called my parents while serving in Japan in 1973-75. But I did get a call from Spencer Palmer while he was traveling in Japan and had a nice conversation with him and his wife Shirley.

    By contrast, my father, who served in the Canadian Mission from 1947-1949, got permission to travel in mid 1948 from Toronto to Niagara Falls (or perhaps it was Hamilton) to propose to my mother, who had just completed her service in that same mission and was traveling back home with her parents.

  13. In the mid-1970s, in southern France, I can remember calling home only once … when my companion’s and my apartment was burgled and I needed more money.

  14. My MTC companion in 1992 was happily surprised to arrive in the mission field and find herself assigned to serve in the same ward where her brother and his wife lived. (This was in the mid-western U.S.)

  15. I served in Venezuela 1976-77 and don’t remember calling home. I do remember asking the AP once if I could call for some occasion and said sarcastically “well,Hermana, if you feel like that would you make you a better missionary then you go right ahead.” Duly chastened, I did not call. Looking back though, I wish I had given him a big thumbs up and said great, thx! And made the call.

  16. Kevin Barney says:

    I don’t recall ever calling home during my mish (77-79). I checked my journal and the only mention of it was my first Mother’s Day, when I said I would have called my mom but she happened to be traveling to Utah for some reason. I’m confident that if I had actually called home I would have mentioned it in my journal.

  17. Truckers Atlas says:

    My semi-annual calls home were always quite brief (15-20 mins), and I vividly recall the horror of being with a companion who made his Christmas-time call a gushy, half-day ordeal. I don’t know what I would do if I had to re-live that experience on a weekly basis for multiple transfers.

  18. “And a final note to say that while I think that the new mission communication policy is certainly a good idea, the historian in me mourns as a key archival source for mission life (correspondence) will now essentially vanish from this point forward.”

    Don’t worry, J. It should all be safely archived at the NSA facility in Utah.

    In seriousness, my journal had many bulleted lists I can’t make sense of that I intended to flesh out later.

    So, I’m so glad to have my weekly correspondence with my family.

  19. My father was an WWII American serviceman when he met my mother – a recent German convert to the church in Vienna. They fell in love and Dad promised to come back and marry her after war ended. He was shipped back home to Utah and 6 months later was sent to Switzerland and German for a 2.5 year mission. Dad got permission from his Mission President to visit my mother (a surprise visit!) for a few days over Christmas. Immediately after his mission ended he traveled to Vienna and they were married a few days later and then left for the US. It didn’t seem all that weird for the Mission President to give dad permission to visit mom at that time.

  20. Father in law, in St. Louis in the late 30s had a visit from his fiancee and future wife for 3 or 4 days. I have his journal. He was a man of few words: said she arrived and a few days later said she left. Hmmm.

    Austria in the early 60s. Calling was too expensive. Letters only.

  21. I too will miss the “key archival source for mission life” since I suspect those weekly emails are going to get sparser and sparser.

    FWIW, a couple of years ago while traveling I ran into a former seminary student and her missionary companion. It was a cold, rainy day so I took them into the restaurant on the corner to buy them lunch, and to let them dry off and warm up. They were grateful for the lunch and the respite, I think, but then when I said goodbye my student teared up and, despite valiant efforts and protestations that she was fine, just fine, couldn’t stop crying. Her companion finally walked her away and onto a bus. I felt awful. To this day I don’t know whether I did a good or a bad thing.

  22. John Mansfield says:

    J. Stapley, thanks for this contribution that only you could have given us.

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