Country Work

So I cracked open the latest BYU Studies Quarterly 58/2 (2019) and read the first article, Reid L. Neilson and Carson V. Teuscher, “Pilgrimage to Palmyra: President B.H. Roberts and the Eastern States Mission’s 1923 Commemoration of Cumorah.” B.H. Roberts was the President of the Eastern States Mission, and September 1923 was going to be the 100-ywar anniversary of Moroni’s appearance to Joseph Smith on the Hill Cumorah, and Roberts wanted to hold a big event to celebrate that milestone (which would be attended by the Church President and several Apostles). As part of the spiritual preparation, Roberts instituted a season of “country work” that summer for the missionaries. “Country work” or “country tracting” is a Mormon expression for having the missionaries leave the cities and towns in which they are stationed, walk out into the countryside, and rely on the kindness of strangers for food and lodging. This is the Mormon version of preaching the Gospel “without purse or scrip.” I find this old practice really interesting and so resolved to blog a bit about it.The scriptural warrant for preaching “without purse or scrip” is found in Luke 10:4 and parallel passages in the Gospels: “Carry neither purse, nor scrip, nor shoes, and salute no man by the way.” This basic idea is elaborated on in D&C 84:77-90:

77 And again I say unto you, my friends, for from henceforth I shall call you afriends, it is expedient that I give unto you this commandment, that ye become even as my friends in days when I was with them, traveling to preach the gospel in my power;

78 For I suffered them not to have apurse or scrip, neither two coats.

79 Behold, I asend you out to bprove the world, and the laborer is worthy of his chire.

80 And any man that shall go and preach this agospel of the kingdom, and fail not to continue bfaithful in all things, shall not be weary in mind, neither darkened, neither in body, limb, nor joint; and a chair of his head shall not fall to the ground unnoticed. And they shall not go hungry, neither athirst.

81 Therefore, take ye no athought for the morrow, for what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink, or wherewithal ye shall be clothed.

82 For, aconsider the blilies of the field, how they grow, they toil not, neither do they spin; and the kingdoms of the world, in all their glory, are not arrayed like one of these.

83 For your aFather, who is in heaven, bknoweth that you have need of all these things.

84 Therefore, let the morrow take athought for the things of itself.

85 Neither take ye thought beforehand awhat ye shall say; but btreasure up in your minds continually the words of life, and it shall be cgiven you in the very hour that portion that shall be meted unto every man.

86 Therefore, let no man among you, for this commandment is unto all the afaithful who are called of God in the church unto the ministry, from this hour take purse or scrip, that goeth forth to proclaim this gospel of the kingdom.

87 Behold, I send you out to areprove the world of all their unrighteous deeds, and to teach them of a judgment which is to come.

88 And whoso areceiveth you, there I will be also, for I will go bbefore your face. I will be on your right hand and on your left, and my cSpirit shall be in your hearts, and mine dangels round about you, to bear you up.

89 Whoso receiveth you receiveth me; and the same will feed you, and clothe you, and give you money.

90 And he who feeds you, or clothes you, or gives you money, shall in nowise alose his reward.

The “without purse or scrip” language is archaic and so often misunderstood. The Greek word ballantion rendered “purse” refers to a bag in which money was kept; modern translations typically use wallet, purse or something like money bag. The Greek word tEra rendered “scrip” means a traveling bag for possessions, like a knapsack.

It is interesting to me that Mormon missionaries never truly went completely without purse or scrip. Some mission presidents would not authorize country tracting because they felt it would violate state vagrancy laws, but the mission presidents who did authorize it got around that by instructing the missionaries to keep on them an amount of cash equal to the minimum set by statute to avoid a vagrancy conviction (which varied by state, it could be $2 or $5 or $10). Also, missionaries took a small suitcase called a “grip” for pamphlets, toiletries, and presumably spare clothing or maybe even some sort of food so they wouldn’t starve if no one would feed them.

There’s a great overview of this mission practice in Jessie Embry, “Without Purse or Scrip,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought29/3 (1985): 77-93 available here. When I first read this years ago I was struck by how relatively recent the practice was. I think I had thought of it as pretty much a 19th century thing, but it was common, though not universal, in the first half of the 20th century, and even existed post=WWII in about a half a dozen missions lasting up until 1950! I remember being surprised by that.

Reactions of missionaries to this practice varied. As a ne missionary in the Central States Mission in 1914, Spencer W. Kimball was assigned to do coutry tracting for several weeks. After walking for 12 miles, he and his companion started asking for “entertainment. At house after house we were turned away. On, on, on we dragged our tired limbs. After walking 3 mi and having asked 12 times for a bed without success we were let in a house, not welcome tho. 15 miles. Very tired, sleepy and hungry. No dinner, no supper.” Conversely, S. Dilworth Young was a fan as a young elder (and would be one of the last MPs to follow this practice). Ogden Kraut, who would later become the famed fundamentalist, was thrilled that Oscar McConkie was still doing this in his California mission after the war, because he viewed it as revelatory and a commandment.

This method didn’t lead to a lot of baptisms, because these visits were one offs and there was no consistent follow through. And even if someone did get baptized, there was no church organization there for the person to attend, and so they drifted back to whatever they had been before. Where the practice seemed to have a positive effect was in growing the faith and confidence of the missionaries, so when they returned to the cities and towns in the winter months they ended up being more effective then.

Central church leaders were often dubious of this practice, but when they actually went out into the field to observe it for themselves (as Harold B. Lee did), they generally changed their minds and supported the practice.

So far as we know, sisters never did country tracting, this was for the elders only.

When the last great proponents of the practice concluded their missions around 1950, their successors did not continue it. After the war there were practical and cultural changes. Private automobiles became much more common, both among the people and in the missions.  Also, the culture had changed, and as hard as it was before, the likelihood of people letting strange men into their house to spend the night plummeted. Also, the development of standardized discussions such as the Anderson Plan required repeated visits, and one-offs were no longer going to work.

I’m curious what your thoughts are about this. Would you have liked to try doing country work on your mission? Can you imagine any circumstance where we might resurrect this old practice? Do these young whippersnappers today have it too easy with their cars and apartments and showers and food? What do you think about this?



  1. The BYU Studies article is free at the website:
    Country work was very physically demanding. Roberts’s exercise reminds me of a handcart trek reenactment with its expectation that one would have a spiritual experience. I would not have liked it. In this case it probably cost the mission some baptisms, as the elders met a lot fewer people than if they’d been in their cities and they had less contact with people they’d been working with in the cities.

  2. Armand Mauss says:

    At age 91, I am likely one of a very few survivors left of the “country work” strategy detailed in Embry’s BYU Studies article. Indeed, the “restoration” of this program in the post-war era (1940s-1950s), was initiated in New England by S. Dilworth Young, not by Oscar McConkie in California, who was obviously influenced by President Young’s success. In New England, with successive companions, I walked the country roads from late June of 1947 through mid-October of that year. In 1948, we started in early June and stayed out until late October. During the rest of each year we rented rooms or apartments and worked in the cities of New England. I have been hoping to find the time to write an extensive memoir of my mission, but I fear I have run out of time. Anyone wanting to read a small sample of my mission experiences can find it on pages 7 – 12 of my general memoir, Shifting Borders and a Tattered Passport (U. of U. Press, 2012), and I have placed a typescript copy of my (rather sketchy) missionary journal in the Church archives. (Apologies for these references to my own writing).
    As Kevin’s post indicates, such an approach to missionary work would not be feasible in today’s world, for neither the missionaries nor their parents would tolerate the many risks and expenses involved, and — dare I say it? — today’s boys of 19-21 probably don’t have the stomach for the stress produced by homeless proselytizing. Many of the boys in my generation were, after all, combat veterans of World War II and no strangers to stress. Of course, the rural and small town folks of New England now are likely much more suspicious and less accommodating than they were then. I found that populace extremely hospitable in general, often allowing us to sleep in their homes several days at a time while we tracted the towns. My companions and I failed no more than a dozen times, in all those months, to get offers for suppers and lodging, leaving us to sleep outside or in barns (sometimes surreptitiously).
    The rationale offered by President Young, I think, for switching us to country work during his four or five years as president, was largely demographic. He recognized that the cities of New England, during the previous two generations, had come to be occupied increasingly by immigrants and their children, who were mainly Roman Catholics, with virtually no interest whatever in discussing any other religion. SDY believed that the old time Yankees, who had embraced the gospel in the beginning, were more likely to be found out in the small towns and rural areas. He was probably right. Nor was it my experience (Kevin to the contrary notwithstanding) that this country work didn’t lead to a lot of baptism, since they tended to be one-off encounters. Indeed, we would work for weeks or even months at a time among the same cluster of small towns, going back again and again to teach investigators until they accepted baptism. My companions and I, in fact, baptized eight such converts, all of whom remained faithful members for the rest of their lives (though, to be sure, most of them moved to the West in the process).
    There is a lot more I could say, especially about the huge difference, between now and then, in the independence and autonomy permitted the missionaries in how we lived our lives, did our work, and sought our entertainment. Those of us not yet responsible men when we began, had to become such men very quickly or else get sent home. Not many failed the challenge during the years I was there.

  3. We didn’t exactly do this on purpose, but in a third world country in the 90s one of my companions and I stayed overnight twice at someone’s house, once a member family and once an investigator family. The member one was a couple hour bus ride from our main area and they had a child they wanted baptized and we were the closest ones to them. We were there on one of several visits and simply missed the last bus out of town. It isn’t like we could walk or take a taxi. As I think back on it now, I don’t think it ever even crossed my mind that we might want to get permission to go so far away from our area, but we met the family by chance and thought we should visit if they wanted us to. The investigator one was at a part of our area where we did have several members and it was definitely part of our area, but it was about an hour walk back to our apartment and the chapel. We were there late at night, which was common – we often stumbled down the uneven dirt road in the pitch dark late at night. But this time a huge rainstorm kicked up just as we were done teaching and about to head home. They offered and we tried leaving but it was coming down so hard that we ran back in and made the judgement call to stay. They were very nice and fed us dinner that night and breakfast the next morning. There were no phones in that village. Even our apartment didn’t have a phone – we had to call in from the gas station in town for transfers and to report numbers. We were about 2 hours from the rest of our zone, so we only saw other missionaries once a month for zone conference. I don’t think I’ve ever been in such an isolated place.

  4. A Christmas Eve ice storm trapped us at a member’s home overnight, 40 miles from our apartment. The members wisely refused to drive us home on the ice rink roads. That was awkward enough–I can’t imagine trudging from German village to German village, relying on the kindness of strangers for food and shelter. Two strange young men together are threatening, regardless of whether they’re missionaries or not. Warm welcomes were extremely rare.

    When I returned years after to backpack solo through Europe, I saw a whole different side to the German people. People would see me opening a map and would rush over to give directions. Sometimes they’d even offer me a ride. This was especially the case outside of tourist areas. Who knows–perhaps a lone missionary could still be offered a hot meal and a place to stay in the villages of Europe.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Jennie, thank you so much for the link to the recent BYU Studies article. I knew BYU Studies was going away from a paywall but I didn’t think that had happened yet. I would encourage folks to read the whole article and not just the country tracting section. One nugget I got a kick out of: they didn’t just call Roberts to be MP, they gave him his pick of any of the domestic missions, and he chose the Eastern States Mission, largely because of his interest in history and that being the home of the church historic sites.

    Armand, thank you for the wonderful comment! It didn’t even ocur to me that I might know someone who had actually done this, so to get a perspective from someone who actually lived it is invaluable.The way you described doing it (staying at the same house several days in a row, giving peoplle multiple lessons instead of just a one off, etc.) does seem like it would be more conducive to baptisms than the way some elders did it (single lessons without follow up).

    Don, thank you for the great addition to the discussion. The two articles on this subject focused exclusively on the United States, and since I too went domestic that is a natural focus for me, but it didn’t even occur to me to consider how some of these concepts might translate to an international context.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Tim, your lone (and therefore less intimidating) missionary idea is fascinating. Hard to imagine the Powers That Be going for it, but I can imagine scenarios where there would be less resistance to a solo missionary. Hard to imagine in this day and age when two missionaries together are not considered adequately chaperoned, but a third person has to (awkwardly) be added to the mix.

  7. Left Field says:

    While I understand the impulse to be helpful, I’ve never understood the compulsion described by Tim to offer directions to someone with a map. If I have a map, I don’t need directions. It’s the people without a map that need directions.

  8. jaxjensen says:

    1st paragraph states that 1823 would be the 100 yr anniversary. Clearly a typo worth fixing. Cheers.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for the catch, jax, I fixed it. Interesting to me that we’re just a few years away now from the 200-year anniversary in 2023.

  10. Kristin Brown says:

    Fascinating. I have nothing to add but found the OP and comments informative and fun to read.
    Thank you!

  11. Kev, Roberts getting called to that mission was a sore spot for several apostles, in particular, Reed Smoot. Smoot didn’t want Roberts anywhere around him (he was a US senator so was in DC) and he campaigned to get him sent some other place. But Salt Lake also wanted two things: Roberts was a great trainer and dedicated missionary and, he was a political thorn. You can’t please everybody. Besides, Heber J. Grant had close ties with Roberts over the latter’s political troubles in the 90s. It’s a rich story. His missionaries loved him, Smoot despised him and there was an unfortunate side effect of the eastern mission presidency. Roberts’s presence as a vibrant church spokesman was somewhat shuttered in many respects. One person who liked that was Susa Young Gates. They deeply disliked each other. While Roberts was gone, Susa got one of his offices to work out of, not without a few chuckles from Joseph Fielding Smith. #wanderingnowoff.

  12. Stephen Hardy says:

    Brother Mauss: Can I encourage you to please write that memoir? Or at least arrange for a recorded interview? I’ve loved your writings.

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    Bill, thanks for the additional color about the animus between Roberts and Smoot. And somehow I remember hearing about Susa getting to use his office in his absence; not sure where I picked up that little nugget.

    Armand, I second Stephen’s call for you to at least do an oral interview on this subject. You weren’t kidding about being one of the few living people who actually experienced this as a young missionary, and you of course have the perspective to illuminate this practice. In any event, I hope you are doing well, my friend.

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    In reading this thread over, I caught Armand’s apt description of this as “homeless proselytizing.” That succinctly gets to the heart of the matter!

  15. Armand, please get that on paper or at least recorded. Do that–please. Kevin, I think that was me that mention Susa on the backlist. Part of her distaste for Roberts stemmed from, how to put this politely, her infatuation with Joseph F. Smith in younger years and JFS’s and Roberts’s ongoing bone-deep dislike for each other.

  16. Matt Harris says:


    Great stuff. I enjoyed reading this. Thank you for sharing.

  17. Country work was still going on in the Denmark mission as late as the early 1950s.

  18. Jack Hughes says:

    Not quite the same thing, but I’m aware of several missions in the last 20 years or so in which missionaries are expected to line up dinner appointments every night in order to eat at all; their mission presidents withhold the money they would normally spend on dinner (or groceries with which to make it). My cousin (who served a suburban stateside mission about 10 years ago) told me of the constant frustration of having to hustle dinner appointments out of the same small pool of willing local members, pushing their kindness and hospitality to the limit—or going to bed hungry.

  19. Left Field says:

    I’m not sure I understand how that works, Jack. In my day (1978-80), I just got a check from home which I cashed to buy groceries and other needs. My understanding was that they later standardized expenses across missions by having the funding sent to Salt Lake, which distributed to missionaries according to the cost of living in each mission. So in the missions you refer to, the missionaries’ families were sending in money (presumably expecting it to cover living expenses like, you know–food), And then Salt Lake was sending funds to the missions to cover living expenses (like, you know–food), and the mission president was withholding food money and expecting the local members to pay the bill, while the mission president pockets the difference, using the food money for who-knows-what. I can’t count how many things are wrong with that.

  20. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    We didn’t travel without purse or scrip, but in the early 90s in northern Ontario, Canada we would regularly spend the night at members’ homes while we worked in remote areas. We had a car, but if we had an appointment, or desire to tract in one of those towns that was a 2-3 hour drive away, we would stick around for a few days, if there was a member in that area. This was mostly, though, the result of the media blitz the Church was undertaking during that time. People would see/hear an advertisement by the Church, offering a free Book of Mormon and would call to request one. They were (deliberately, to be sure) unaware that it would be delivered in person. The person’s information would be passed on to us from the mission office and we were expected to deliver that book within a couple days, regardless of how far away it was. So we would make arrangements to stay with someone, if possible. I can’t say those extended visits to an area resulted in many (any) conversions, but the extended time with members really did help to strengthen their connection to the Church, being so far away from other members. For that reason, it was quite successful.

  21. Mark B. says:

    I had a seminary teacher named Grant Shields in Provo, Utah, in the late 1960s who told of serving in the New England Mission, of traveling “without purse or scrip,” and who spent a night in jail–maybe more than one, but my memory is fuzzy–for vagrancy. I suspect that he was there during the late 40s, the same time as Armand Mauss. (I just checked his obituary–which said he “labored without purse or script [sic] in Vermont.)

    As to the feeding of missionaries: I remember being encouraged to ask missionaries to dinner in order to help reduce their food expenses. Unfortunately that was coupled with encouragement to finish dinner before 6:00 p.m. so the missionaries could be out during prime proselytizing time in the evening. I grew up in Provo, Utah, and never had dinner before 6:00 p.m.; in New York City, where I’ve lived the past four decades, nobody who has a job ever has dinner that early.

  22. Mark B., where we currently live, the mission president wants the missionaries to eat dinner at 4:00 pm! The only day that is workable is on Sunday. He wants them specifically to be tracting between 5:00 and 6:00 pm when people are likely to be getting home. I would think people would be annoyed to have missionaries coming to the door right when they’re getting home from work or preparing dinner. But the missionaries here seem to feel it works well.

  23. Of course the missionaries seem to feel it works well. It’s a commandment from their mission president. It could be a dismal failure and most the missionaries would still feel it works well.

  24. nobody, really says:

    We’re in a rural area where the missionaries almost have enough miles to get to district meetings, zone conferences, and transfers. Almost. The mission president says “Have a member drive you”, but we only have about 4 men in the branch who have enough money for gas. If they expect a ride 3 hours each way for zone conference on a weekday, there’s only one person who can do it.

    We also get hit with the “dinner at 4 PM” silliness. Our missionaries only get about 3 meal appointments per week, so they eat a lot more ramen than is healthy. My solution has been to have weekly dinners with them at 8 PM instead, so they are off the streets about the time the gunfire on the south end of town is ramping up.

  25. Interesting post, Kevin, and with a great comment from Armand! Thank you so much for sharing that experience! I’ll join the chorus of voices begging you to at least record an oral history.

    There’s a part of me that I think would have really enjoyed this. I like long walks, hiking, sleeping outside.

    I served in Arizona in the early 2000s and sometimes had very large areas because I was Spanish speaking. We never did anything like this, but sometimes we would drive out to rural towns in remote parts of the area for tracting. I remember getting weird looks from other missionaries and members for this. Our stake now covers lots of very rural areas in the southern tier of western New York and there are tons of rural communities that never really see missionaries. I do sometimes wish there was more of a desire to expand our coverage in these areas, even aside from the specific method of relying on local hospitality for food and lodging.

  26. Michael H. says:

    If my experience in Argentina (2007-2009) would be any indication, the people with the means (space, food, furniture, etc.) to host (often suspiciously foreign) strangers overnight wouldn’t be willing to do so, and the people who might be willing do so would have the least means.

  27. Kevin Barney says:

    Jared, good point that some elders would be more interested in this approach than others. While writing this I thought of Hugh Nibley, who served in Germany in the late 20s, I believe. He LOVED the outdoors (as in before his mission spending weeks by himself in the wild). I have no idea whether this was something he was supposed to do or something he just wanted to do, but as a missionary he would often just sleep under a tree, and he sustained himself by sucking on wheat that he kept in his suit pocket. (And I’m not sure whether he even had a companion; my impression is he may have been so hard core that no one wanted to go with him and the MP just let him go alone.)

    So yeah, for some young men this outdoorsy stuff might have been a feature and not a bug.

  28. I tried a sort of version of this for one day in Austria around 1964. We went out on the main highway in Burgenland going south and hitchhiked all day. It was against the rules but we had a good time. We talked to a bunch of people.

    On our way back, after dark on a fall evening, our ride dumped us off in the middle of nowhere. God must have been with us because we immediately flagged down a car going to Eisenstadt within a few seconds. A doctor in a Mercedes. He was not too pleased, but drove us any way.

    If I had had any say the way things went, I would have had the missionaries going out one day a week hitchhiking. We never did that again, however.

  29. I have a friend, Dale, who served in Montana probably in the early 60s or late 50s. He claimed that he spent his whole mission without purse or scrip. He said that only once or twice did he not have a place to stay or dinner. He did a lot of farm work and preached during lunch hour.

  30. Maybe Nebraska

  31. Kevin Barney says:

    RW, one thing that comes out from these accounts is that if you were willing to pitch in and do some work on the farm, then the dinner and a bed was no problem.

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