Reclaiming Missionary Folklore

Could you imagine running into this guy during Sacrament meeting?

Could you imagine running into this guy during Sacrament meeting?

If you asked me which books on my shelf I loved the most, within the top three would be my Treasury of Jewish Folktalesby Nathan Ausubel. A fifth printing from November 1948, I picked it up at a bookstore in Pike Place Market during my honeymoon. Since then, I’ve eagerly read page after page of folktales which have supplemented my life greatly.

There is something about storytelling and folktales that simply stick within our minds. Humorous anecdotes and jests can help bring a barbed lesson home without it irritating our pride, while a shared cultural myth or story can unite a people together with common knowledge and purpose.

Of course, just like any culture, our Latter-day Saint culture possesses a great deal of folklore – apocryphal tales of Joseph Smith, stories about Porter Rockwell that border fantasy, seemingly random myths such as Bigfoot being the walking incarnation of Cain. With these stories, it’s hard to tell what’s fact and what’s fiction, and that’s where most of the fun is – we tell them over and over again, passing these stories along, hoping that these stories might have an element of truth.

Talk to any missionary and you will, after you gain their trust, receive a tome of whispered tales. They don’t know the subjects personally, but a friend of a companion, or perhaps a trainer’s trainer’s trainer, or a friend from another mission reports a hard to confirm (but still incredibly fun and juicy) tale. Maybe a general authority (or even an apostle) walked into their mission, scanned the congregation, told half the missionaries by name to stand up, pack their bags, and go home. Maybe some missionaries helped cast out a devil, or just met a really (literally) insane person.

I’ve decided to start collecting these myths and folktales and compile a Treasury of Missionary Folktales (of sorts). I’m not trained in historiography or myth collecting, but I this is a subject that has fascinated me for a very long time. So if you have mission stories to share, please, by all means, share them! If you know of missionaries who have such stories, please forward this email to them and ask them to send theirs as well! It doesn’t matter if it’s just the whispers of rumors or if they can’t be confirmed – the more apocryphal the better. But if they ran into something that happened to them, that’s perfect, too. I’ll categorize and compile them, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we start to see mission story archetypes cropping up.

Please send any of the stories to missionfolklore@gmail.com. Thanks for helping out!

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5 Comments

Filed under life stories, religion, wordsmithing

5 responses to “Reclaiming Missionary Folklore

  1. David

    This is a great idea! Our mission had it’s share or ‘legends’, most revolved around the former mission president, who had worked for the CIA. Some said that his original mission call was to serve in Russia, but he informed the First Presidency that there were still people in Russia who wanted him imprisoned, so they changed his mission call to Germany. They also told that he, and one of the senior elders serving in the Office, who had been his driver, would drive into Russia, or East Germany and take pictures of secret camps and get chased out by the Communists.

    And then there were rumors that half of a Stake High Council in Northern Germany were ex-communicated about 20 years ago. I never really heard any reasons why, or the story to that. I’m sure the details are fun!

  2. Ted

    I know what you mean!

    There were rumors that the bishopric a long time ago in an area of my mission were excommunicated for skimming tithing funds. There was such a dark spirit over the land a General Authority had to come and un-curse it.

    But a CIA mission president! That’s too much! Awesome! I love it!

  3. Missionary folklore isn’t endearing to everyone. I never went on a mission, but I had many opportunities to share the gospel. However, to some this isn’t enough and that really makes me angry. I had a religion teacher at BYU who prefaced nearly every lesson with, “Of course, return missionaries should already know this point of doctrine…” as if RMs were intrinsically better members of the church (I could name a few RMs who could shift that paradigm for you, if needed). And how many times has a Sunday School teacher begun class with, “By raise of hands, how many of you have served a mission? Ok, then I don’t even need to teach this lesson to you guys.” It is annoying, condescending, and a little bit hurtful.

    I really hated going out with guys who couldn’t stop telling mission stories. “When I was on my mission….when I was on my mission…” Also, I hate the phrase, “My mission was the best two years of my life.” Really? Are you serious? What about the 10 years you’ve been married to your wife? Did that even make the top ten?

    Serving a mission is a wonderful thing, but it is not the end all and be all of Mormonism. And similarly, Missions are not the only source of crazy Mormon folklore. I spent two years in Kuwait as a high school student – we members (former and current) of the Saudi Arabian Peninsula stake have our own stories to share. Heck, Provo, Utah has its share of crazy folklore.

  4. Ted

    Mormon folklore in general is very interesting to me, so please share your stories as well, by all means! I’m just one of those people who compulsively collect stories and scraps of stories. I am just like you where I find the missionary/returned missionary culture unnecessarily stratifies the Church social order in an incredibly unhealthy manner. Let us not forget that our current prophet is not a “returned missionary.”

    The reasons mission stories in general are so fascinating to me is two-fold (and please hear me out):

    (1) When you get a bunch of missionaries together and basically isolate them from the world, but their life cycles are very short (two years at the longest) you get some really bizarre stories passed down in a very oral tradition. Usually, this doesn’t happen anymore – texting, the Internet, emails, websites, letters, books of people writing them down – also help transmit our folklore and cultural traditions as Mormons. But without any access to that, the mission is as close as I can see to a culture that is fairly advanced in technology and yet seems to rely on oral methods in transmitting some of the stories. A few of them are recorded in the forms of emails and letters home, but I know of very few missionaries who would write stories of apocryphal appalling apostasy back to their eager family.

    (2) I’m really only interested in the very bizarre stories.

    Call me sensational, but it also bugs me when some RM is all, “And then I baptized the entire village using object lessons and this spatula and that’s how I know tithing is a true principle.” I don’t want stories about how awesomely overbearing or unrighteous dominion-y you are; I want bizarre stories that have that “it’s too crazy to be true – but it could be true” nature.

    I heard stories while on my mission about missionaries using baptismal fonts as jacuzzis (which made me rage), or missionaries marrying other missionaries secretly (which made me roll my eyes), or some very harrowing devil casting out stories (if they are true). And then when I came back, I heard other missionaries who went to missions on the other side of the world tell the exact story with only slight variations but swore up and down that it happened in their mission, too.

    There’s something about the mission that acts as a rumor mill crucible where you get some truly bizarre and embellished stories and I want to collect and categorize them to see if we can find any common threads that hold them together.

    But really, any kind of Mormon folklore (especially the bizarre and humorous) I find absolutely fascinating. I had a friend who told his non-member girlfriend that the white cloths covering the sacrament trays were really burial shrouds covering a dead person and that she was “really lucky” because we usually don’t do baptisms for the dead every Sunday (her face, he assures me, was priceless). One time I had a friend ask me what I had a shovel in my trunk for and I told him to find candidates for baptisms for the dead (his face, I assure you, was priceless; the real reason was for a service project).

    Your experiences with the Saudi Arabian Peninsula stake, I am sure, are fascinating and so I mean it with all sincerity, I would be incredibly interested in hearing your stories to tell.

  5. Pingback: Anthology of Mormon Folklore « Truffle Studios

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