On Missions, Books, and Seriously Going Off the Deep End, Plus a Paean to my Second MP (U: Now with pics)

Knowledge Bowl copy

Played soccer and ran track, but I only lettered in Knowledge Bowl. First in State, in the written round.

I was always somewhat bookish, even before my mission.

It began in my first city, Strasbourg. We encountered a guy who, as I recall, asked kindly “how do you think you can tell everyone else they’re wrong when you barely know anything about your own tradition, let alone all the others?” (Edit: On further reflection, I think he was Muslim.) While I’d respond differently today, it made an impression at the time. I felt deeply and vulnerably ignorant, and was inspired to start learning just to make that feeling go away. I started digging into the huge backlog of Ensign and The Instructor in the local Church library. (My memorization of the discussions got seriously bogged down after the second, since we rarely taught beyond that anyway.) I learned that the mission office would order books for us through Church distribution and the Deseret Book catalog. After looking through them, I ordered copies of all the Institute manuals, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, and Gospel Doctrine by Joseph F. Smith. I had already read through the prescribed missionary library of Jesus the Christ and such, so new material was needed. During my required study time, I read the Book of Mormon and New Testament in French, following along with the Institute manuals, marking up and taking extensive notes.

In my second city, I met Elder Winn who seemed to know many things about history and doctrine. In retrospect, I don’t think he knew that much. He had probably read 2-3 books whereas most missionaries had read none. But he had a copy of Mormon Doctrine which I borrowed and read cover to cover. I definitely raised my eyebrows a few times (“dragons” are simply memories of pre-flood dinosaurs? What?), but found its breadth and depth inspiring.


Mulhouse, and the Chicago Temple-style fountain, outside our apartment.

My third city, Mulhouse, was a real turning point. I’d been through the New Testament entirely in French and the KJV, the Book of Mormon a few times, and read all my other books. I also encountered Christophe, who had gone to BYU, and taught German, French, and English professionally, as well as volunteer Institute. A friendly guy with an overweight cat named Tummy, Christophe introduced me to… the FARMS Catalogue. Although little more than a four-page listing of titles and authors on yellow-brown paper, those titles tantalized me. I ordered several things.  And then again. Book of Mormon Authorship and Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited, Offenders for a WordRediscovering the Book of Mormon,  Hugh Nibley volumes on the Book of Mormon, Temple, and Early Christianity, a copy of John Welch’s “Greek New Testament Word Studies” (partially published in the Ensign and expanded elsewhere)…. My Mom sent me a copy of President Hinckley’s biography, notable for its non-hagiographic approach.


“Do the members support you, Elder Spackman?”
“… they back us up.” A visit to Bastogne.

I read scripture during study time, and other books at meals, before bed, and on the train/bus when no one was around, and sometimes when they were.  I ended up with a very uneven library of nearly 50 books, notable since they all had to be shipped from the US, heavily oriented towards scripture, history, and


Liège, and its “famous” baptismal font on oxen. Yes, that’s a copy of The Great Apostasy I’m holding

apologetics. One thing that stood out repeatedly was languages. Greek word studies, Hugh Nibley’s command of languages I’d never heard of, differences between the KJV and Louis Segond Bible, and the totally unexplained presence of Hebrew letters at random spots in Psalm 119 of our KJV (really, look it up!) made me very aware of the power of language both to confuse and enlighten, as well as the limitations of English-only study. I wanted to master them. In retrospect  very unusual for a missionary, I read the entire Bescherelle grammar volume, which got me out of the French re-entry class for missionaries at BYU, I read out loud with lovely Parisian-accent language tapes of the Book of Mormon, bought a modern Greek language tourist book, and started trying to learn the Hebrew alphabet from Psalm 119. I also picked up a Spanish-in-15-minutes-a-day book to play with, and an illustrated book about writing Mandarin characters. Each time I finished the Book of Mormon or New Testament, I’d write the date inside the front cover and start over. I also did a highly selective read of the Old Testament and D&C with the Institute manuals, but found more profit and relevance in the other standard works. Meanwhile, the boats kept bringing books. Reading kept me sane, and the knowledge was useful and even, well, somewhat prestigious among missionaries. I felt like the proverbial one-eyed man among the blind.


A moment of levity in Nancy. One of the departing YSA was an Elvis fan.

At the one year mark, something happened. My first mission president departed, and a new one arrived, with a significant history I knew nothing about. Let us back up about several decades, to France in the late 1950s.

A highly successful and charismatic missionary goes off course a bit, then a lot, then starts recruiting other missionaries as disciples, all in secret. They begin tracting only a little, but studying 12 hours a day, and not the normal stuff either: History of the Church, RLDS proselytizing material, Fundamentalist polygamy material, Adam-God material. They start wearing old-style ankle-wrist garments, and considering polygamy, going much further than the typical baseless late-night speculation of most companionships. The ringleader’s SOP with a new companion was to test the waters and see how he responded. As various General Authorities and the mission president began to suspect something amiss, an Elder Ray Hart arrived in the mission and was assigned to an Elder Tucker as trainer. Within a month, Elder Tucker would be unveiled as the ringleader, sent home, and excommunicated for Apostasy along with several other Elders and Sisters, the result of excessive study of seriously unapproved material.   (See part 1 and part 2 for the full story from Dialogue.)

Forty years later, Elder Ray Hart became President Ray Hart, my second mission president.

Mission exit

President and Sister Hart

In light of President Hart’s affirmation of mission policy to limit our study materials (which had been fairly loose to that point), I asked him during our first meeting what I should do with all my books. I told him I’d acquired a library of about fifty volumes, on history, scripture, French language, and had more on the way.  I offered to box them up and leave them in the office if necessary, but expressed a desire to keep studying. He inquired as to my study and proselytizing habits and after reflecting for a bit counseled me to keep them and keep reading, as long as it didn’t take away from my work time.  Years later, in the BYU library, I was shocked to recognize my MP’s name in the story of the French mission apostasy. In light of his personal experience with Elder Tucker, I’ve gained more respect, gratitude, and even a measure of surprise at President Hart’s decision to allow me to continue as I had been, but it proved formative.

I kept reading and studying, determined to get a good grasp on the Bible. Having lost my prestigious (and somewhat accidentally acquired) University Club scholarship at Utah State, and wanting to attend the BYU Jerusalem Center (another mission buddy had attended and told me about the experience), I transferred to BYU, where I eventually became a Near Eastern Studies major. I attended the Jerusalem Center. I planned on applying to medical school, but my semester of organic chemistry combined with the growing pull of Hebrew and the Old Testament convinced me otherwise. Off to the University of Chicago I went for a MA/PhD, and you all know how that turned out. Just as the effects of the old mission apostasy reverberated through France for decades (I served in some of the same areas), the effects of my MP’s decision also have done so. I blog, teach, publish. I hope my writing and teaching will affect many people for good.  I have high hopes, anyway.


Herstal. My last apartment, and one of Elder Tucker’s area as well.

My mission converted me in many ways. I was converted to Christ, to scripture, to study and scholarship. Passing interest in languages became a passion. Previous disdain for history, Europe, French cheese, and Near Eastern studies became serious interests, loves, and, I hoped, professions. Was it the best two years? Nowhere near as good the years following. Was it the most formative two years? Unquestionably.


28 comments for “On Missions, Books, and Seriously Going Off the Deep End, Plus a Paean to my Second MP (U: Now with pics)

  1. Elder Winn was trained by my trainer, if I am not mistaken. Good times. I wished we would have overlapped more, or at least got to hang out once or twice.

    I think it was you who finally filled me in on the back story to Hart.

  2. Alain, there were two, including that one (this would be late spring of 97.) I was there for two months, and the other time was spent in the high rise, 1 Rue de Metz, across from the Tower of Europe. The funniest thing was, it had a water sculpture in front that was almost identical to that of the Chicago Temple, which I had somehow assumed was some kind of “sacred sculpture.” (It was at a temple, wasn’t it?)


    Looks like the sculpture is gone, and
    a tram system is now in place.

    John F., glad to reflect.

    Stapley, indeed. I’ve not found Winn again.

  3. I wonder how having Elders barely out of High School will change the intellectual terrain of missions? I think that Strasbourg citizen’s question is apt. What would missions look like if we spent as much time learning as we do being fastidiously obedient?

  4. I had a similar experience at Geneva, where the ward library had several Nibley books. That was back when ward libraries had books.

  5. It’s a good question, KLC. Missionaries (at least some) used to be encouraged in this fashion.

    “In 1961, Elder Henry D. Moyle traveled throughout Europe, visiting missions. At a conference in Hamburg, he spoke for more than four hours, a talk that inspired me, a talk that would now be unthinkable. After promising, in what I would later come to recognize as missionary boilerplate, that if we worked harder, studied longer, made ourselves more receptive to the Spirit, we would baptize, he continued on with a truly exceptional question. “You want to teach the German people something about life and religion,” he said, shaking his head, “but what do you know about these people? How many of you have read anything by Johann Wolfgang Goethe?” There were more than two hundred missionaries in that room. Not a single hand went up. “How many have read Friedrich Schiller?” No one. “Gotthold Ephraim Lessing? Immanuel Kant? Friedrich Nietzsche?” We sat chastened and silent. He stared at us glumly. “The German people have a thousand years of history and culture. How do you think you are going to talk to them, get to their hearts and minds, when you know nothing about them?”” From http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Keeping-Faith-and-Reading-Kafka

  6. Good stuff, Ben. My mission experience was formative for me in much the same way yours was for you.

  7. I can’t recall where the Sister missionaries lived while we were there. My guess is it was Rue de Metz.

    I enjoyed getting to know Christophe also as we had many discussions with him about languages, Church history, and the growth of the Church in France. He went so far as to carry back some of the many books I collected while serving and hand them off to me at O’Hare 6 months later shortly after I had returned home and he happened to be visiting the States.

    Mulhouse was a vibrant city and I loved serving there due to the diverse discussions we encountered and real difference we made in many people’s lives even though they didn’t join the Church. But we saw no success whatsoever there which was devestating for me as an experienced DL, out for 18 months, trying his best to set the example for his District. This led to discussions of whether we ought to start teaching the Manipulation Pattern instead of the Commitment Pattern as we saw five, I kid you not, five well converted individuals fall away only a week or two from their scheduled baptism date.

    We had two extraordinary Sister missionaries, either of whom I think would have done a better job than me in leading the work in the area. I showered my support and appreciation for them and encouraged their efforts and they baptized fabulous converts almost like clockwork every month. I couldn’t possibly consider taking any credit for their success.

    My Dad had told me the story of Tucker and clan before I left for my mission to the Belgium Brussels mission because he had his own unusual encounter when being interviewed by Elder Hugh B. Brown prior to being called on his mission to France in 1959. Why my Dad was interviewed by an Apostle prior to being called escapes me but my recollection is that this was not unusual. One of the first questions asked of my Dad, a scholarly young man of languages and science who had just graduated from UC Berkeley, was where he hoped to serve. The response, “I would really like to go serve in France,” led to an unusually deep and probing interview by Elder Brown that only fully revealed its purpose to my father months later as he came to understand what had just transpired in the Paris mission.

    I did not realize President Hart had that connection to Tucker as I recall reading the Dialogue articles discussing what happened in Paris shortly after I returned from my mission and he had not yet been called.

  8. Thanks for posting this, I’ve heard rumors of stories similar to this in my mission and at least one other. None of them were verifiable though I suspect this is the incident that started them all. I’m looking forward to reading through the link.

  9. As a side note to my previous disdain for ancient Near Eastern studies, a girl I’d dated in High School was at BYU freshman year, while I was at Utah State. I was doing engineering, she was taking Hebrew and Near Eastern studies. I remember saying something like “why are you studying that? Isn’t it kind of the most useless thing ever?” Really had to eat my words later.

  10. Ah, to be 19 again.

    Thanks for this. This brings back memories. I was in the Paris mission, apparently about 1 year after you.

    What’s amazing about that 1950s French missionary apostasy incident is how well known it is. I’ve heard people mention it before, during, and after my mission.

    As far as Mormon scholarship goes, my feeling now is that religion is more about the social community, not intellectual research. So that Muslim actually had it wrong. To be fair, I didn’t quite feel this way when I was a missionary.

  11. Interesting to hear about the missionary apostasy in France. I spent some time in a ward not too far from Strasbourg (quite possibly a bordering ward). Sometime around 1990, give or take, the majority of the ward leadership was excommunicated or disfellowshipped. The ward survived, fortunately–and a decade later, when I was there, it was thriving–but mass apostasies still happen.

  12. Wow, cool story. I ended up reading the links too. This is the first time that I have heard this story. But I have heard stories of Adam-Goders and people who defect in order to observe a more orthodox way of living. I marvel at these types because my story was: return from mission as run-of-the-mill orthodox believer, marry in temple, attend graduate school, gradually descend into state of disbelief of traditional doctrines, remain a spiritual but non-institutional humanist at heart and an active, but quiet, LDS person on the outside. I always thought that many of the questioners would tend towards the direction that I went, not the FLDSish direction. I already think the LDS church is orthodox enough, I simply can’t fathom someone thinking that they need to defect in order to pursue a more orthodox and austere way of living.

  13. Contrary to Steve, that story rings very true to me. Immediately prior to my departure from the church, I came rather close to going down the fundamentalist path. During and soon after my mission, I was kind of a watered-down and less charismatic version of Elder Tucker. Like him, I took 19th century prophetic statements very, very seriously and found myself becoming very frustrated when I compared that church with today’s church. Furthermore, I’m not in the least bit surprised that he ended up turning atheist, since this is exactly what happened to me. Happily, however, I have been finding my way back, but it took some serious rearranging of my mental furniture in order for me to do this. I guess the moral is “never give up hope!”

  14. I enjoyed reading this, Ben. I wasn’t expecting Pres. Hart to be so sympathetic toward your reading; that was a nice surprise. Sadly, it wasn’t until well after my mission that I “went off the deep end.”

  15. It was eerie to read your assessment of your fellow missionaries and their lack of breadth or depth, so much like most missionaries in my mission, including myself. I was a shallow, uneducated naïf and way over my head in discussions with anyone who could talk about the world and religion beyond a seventh-grade level. Sadly, I don’t think much has changed. I taught SS for many years and while most students could give you the standard lines, none of them had been exposed to anything other than what was required to get through seminary.

  16. Don, I don’t fault missionaries. It’s a cultural issue. We don’t encourage reading, Seminary doesn’t model deep study, some missions strictly prohibit any unapproved reading. Coupled with the rhetoric of Gospel Simplicity, missionaries can think they know pretty much all there is to know when the reality is they know very little. I experienced that teaching at BYU, in one particular story. It doesn’t look like I’ve ever written it up (wrongly thought I had, here) so perhaps I should.

  17. Interesting stuff Ben. I just learned that my current bishop was mission companions with Mark Hoffman. The church really is a small world.

  18. There’s no value in having missionaries teach anything beyond a seventh-grade level.

    People become Mormons because of the social community, not because missionaries bedazzle them with knowledge.

  19. Good times, my friend. I will note that your example of study did motivate me to focus much more on my own scripture study and trying to deepen my understanding of the Gospel, which I have always appreciated.

    PS: La vie catholique me plait beaucoup. Let’s see if you remember that one. ;-)

  20. Caffeine, it may be true that there is no value in having them teach beyond a 7th grade level but I think there is great value in them having more than a 7th grade level of knowledge, they aren’t the same thing. Learning how much you don’t know is the beginning of humility. More humility is something most LDS missionaries, including the one that used to stare back at me in the mirror, could use.

  21. Agreed, KLC. Missionaries aren’t meant to be college professors. On the other hand, humility is highly useful. A better understanding of what you do and don’t know gives you a better framework for understanding what knowledge you *do* have. More knowledge prevents missionaries from making doctrinal mistakes or misrepresenting LDS positions (e.g. crap about wine in the NT just being grape juice, or things like the story below with the “scrolls discussion.”) I see very few negatives to missionaries being better informed.

    I recall a time in my last area (when I was at the peak of my “powers”), when some JW’s traced into our apartment. We had a garage below us, accessible by stairs. I was restlessly sitting on the stairs listening to my companion (out for maybe 4-5 months) react less ably to their interpretations and scriptures… but I didn’t do anything. I knew plenty, but there was no point in arguing. When he came back, the two of us had a conversation about their perspectives.

    BY spoke about missionaries a few times

    Debate and argument have not that saving effect that has testifying to the truth as the Lord reveals it to the Elder by the Spirit. I think you will all agree with me in this; at least, such is my experience. I do not wish to be understood as throwing a straw in the way of the Elders storing their minds with all the arguments they can gather to urge in defense of their religion, nor do I wish to hinder them in the least from learning all they can with regard to religions and governments. The more knowledge the Elders have the better.

    Discourses Of Brigham Young, p. 330


    was asked some years ago by a mission president to speak to his missionaries at a zone conference. We had a lovely gathering and a fine exchange of ideas. I was invited to stay for lunch and visit with the missionaries. I did a great deal of listening and learned much. One of the most interesting conversations revolved around a young couple who were being taught by the missionaries but who were not progressing. “They’re golden people,” one elder said, “ripe and ready for membership in the Church. They just won’t commit to be baptized.” Several suggestions were made by the missionaries listening in—fasting with them, having the bishop meet with them, intensifying the friendshipping effort, etc., to all of which the first elder said, “We’ve tried that.” After a long pause, one elder spoke up: “Have you given them the Scrolls Discussion?” The first elder responded: “No, do you think this would be a good time for the Scrolls Discussion?” “Sounds like a perfect time to me,” the first [second?] came back.
    Now I had never heard of the Scrolls Discussion. I was dying to know what it was so I blurted out: “What’s the Scrolls Discussion?” The second elder looked quizzically at me and said: “Surely, Brother Millet, you’ve heard of the Scrolls Discussion?” I indicated that I had not. “The Scrolls Discussion,” he said, “involves showing the people how the Dead Sea Scrolls proves the truthfulness of the Church!” I asked: “How do you do that?” “Well,” he replied, “as you know, the Dead Sea Scrolls contains information about a group of Christians out in the deserts of Judea.” I said, “No, it doesn’t. The Dead Sea Scrolls were written by a group of hyperreligious Jews.” He said: “Oh, I didn’t know that.” Then the elder followed up: “Well, you do know that they had three presiding high priests at the head of their Church.” I indicated that the leaders of their group were Aaronic priests, not Melchizedek. He went on: “Well, there’s much doctrine within the Scrolls which proves ours to be true.”
    I commented that the Scrolls were interesting historical documents but did very little for us doctrinally. This exchange went on for about ten minutes, the elder providing what he thought to be airtight “proofs” and me trying to gently let him know that most of what he understood about the Dead Sea Scrolls was simply untrue. I could see the frustration in his eyes. He breathed a sigh and then concluded the debate with, “Well, I’ll just say this—the Scrolls Discussion has always worked perfectly for me!” I thought then (and have since) about all the people who may have come into the Church as a result of what they learned in the famous Scrolls Discussion. I shuddered.

    As told by Robert Millet.

  22. Very interesting. On my mission, which was Chinese speaking (in Canadia), there was a general hopelessness in communicating anything other than the most basic doctrinal ideas to investigators. This was mostly because of the language barrier but also because of the extreme lack of religious sophistication among the mainland Chinese, even the very educated. At the time I remember feeling frustrated that I was generally unable to share with them the more subtle (and I thought interesting) doctrinal differences between Mormies and other Christians, but now feel it was good that we were essentially forced to stick to the basics. I remember reading bios of most of the presidents of the Church during my mission and was surprised by (a) how much nepotism there seemed to be among the Mormon elite and (b) how genuinely outstanding from a worldly perspective the leadership was.

    Also: I also had a President Hart! President James E Hart presided over the (now defunct) Canadia Toronto East Mission sometime around 2000 ( I served 01 to 03 and had him for 1 year). He looks a lot like your mission pres, I wonder if they were related!

  23. Whenever missionaries in my mission requested to study “deeper” materials, my president would ask them how many times they had read each of the standard works. Often, the answer was that they had never read any of them all the way through. So I can see why there is leeriness regarding “deep” study.

    The last few time I have been on exchanges with the elders, I found it jarring how rarely they open the scriptures during a discussion! If I didn’t interject with a supporting scripture from time to time, I think we could have gone through multiple discussions without quoting a single prophet, scriptural or otherwise. Do they not know the scriptures, or do they not think reading scriptures helps?

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