The Hypothetical “Missionary Library”

ifAs a companion piece to Dave’s post on missionaries, let’s talk about the approved missionary library.

I have concerns about what missionaries study, know, and teach. The typical missionary develops far more motivation to read and study “the literature of the Church” than before the mission, but is far more restricted, although mission presidents have leeway to relax this. Certainly the primary content of missionary study should be scripture and the doctrine, but I think by narrowing the library too much, we miss real opportunities both for the missionaries themselves and the people they teach.

My own mission studies greatly affected my life, and missionaries tend to be the front line for questions from non-LDS, often about topics they’ve never heard of. As expressed by a friend, “It is just ridiculous that investigators can investigate (research the Church) but missionaries cannot research or study to give answers to questions. It is appalling that on most issues, missionaries can learn more from Internet-informed investigators than the investigator can learn from the missionary.”

On my mission (Europe, 96-98), you could buy a coherent collection called The Missionary Library. A revised, smaller collection is still available to purchase (12$ from the LDS catalog here).


  • Jesus the Christ
  • Our Search for Happiness
  • The Articles of Faith
  • A Marvelous Work and a Wonder
  • Truth Restored/Gospel Principles


  • Jesus the Christ
  • Our Search for Happiness
  • True to the Faith
  • Our Heritage

Out are A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, The Articles of Faith, and Truth Restored. Gospel Principles is still available to missionaries via In now are True to the Faith and Our Heritage.

Now, I have no objection to updating the library per se; some older titles may perpetuate doctrinal expressions or ideas that are inaccurate, ineffective, or just irrelevant. (Sometimes it’s useful to read older expressions for historical perspective.) But it’s an awfully basic and narrow library and I’m not sure any of these merit being reread or studied closely. (Some of Talmage’s NT interpretations are quite outdated. He wrote it based on then-current Protestant scholarship.)

So, if I/you were a mission president with a lot of leeway or a pilot project, what would I prescribe or allow my missionaries to read? Would I provide a structured reading program (i.e. “once you’ve read through the NT and Book of Mormon at least once, read these two books”)? I might stock certain books or article collections in every apartment. At minimum, I would provide a bibliography, with a few books/articles highlighted, then a broader bibliography, presumably with a caveat from the mission president about focus on scripture, the nature of these books (introductory, not perfect, not official, etc.)

Let’s set ourselves some limitations, and keep it to a library of 15 books to add to the list above.

Here are some of my initial suggestions of books (thought about it all of 5 minutes, so reserve my right to revise), which cover history, scripture, biography, and other things, meant to give “facts” but also to shape paradigms early on, with good grounding. Gently expanding and challenging, but also supporting. Nothing too radical.

  1. Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930
    • Many (most?) of the differences between the modern church and the church of Nauvoo or early Salt Lake  take place in this period, many of which play a part in missionary teaching or common questions, e.g. the Word of Wisdom, the ending of plural marriage, etc. Reading it acquaints us with the actual history and context of these things, thereby undermining presentism and the idea that the status quo is inherently eternal or written in stone
  2. How Wide the Divide?: A Mormon & an Evangelical in Conversation
    • While it has its flaws, HWD models calm and informed theological discussion, helps understand how Mormonism looks from the outside, and introduces the idea that some of what we take as “revealed doctrine” may be more of a strong tradition than revelation per se. The follow-up essays by the authors in BYU Studies, as well as the LDS and Evangelical essays in the FARMS Review were also highly educational.
  3. Encyclopedia of Mormonism (stock in each apartment)
    • Though from a non-LDS publisher, it had Apostolic involvement and predominantly LDS writers. I’d like to see missionaries start turning to this to get background and references, instead of Mormon Doctrine. It’s all online now. Do BYU websites fall under the missionary iPad accessibility list?
  4. Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited
  5. By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion
  6. Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem
    • The Book of Mormon is central to LDS proselytizing, and the more missionaries know it and about it the better. The first volume gets into questions and theories of where it came from, the second deals with how its been read inside and outside the LDS community, and the third provides the bridge into the Biblical history and culture it emerges from. Perhaps too narrow for some, but again, this is a missionary list.
  7. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling
    • Yeah, I went there. Yes, RSR can be a challenge or boon to faith, or both. But if I’m recommending biographies and history, I can’t skip Joseph Smith, and can’t justify anything but this.
  8. David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism
    • This isn’t just a biography, but a history, which generally picks up where Mormonism in Transition ends. The growth of the Church outside Utah, growing racial concerns, the introduction and growth of Correlation, all figure in here. It also shows in many ways the internal workings of the Church, and how Apostles handle disagreements.
  9. Lengthen Your Stride (Deseret Book, biography of President Kimball.)
    • Actually, I’d want missionaries to read one of the PDFs included on the CD-rom. Again, recent history of import. In-depth looks at the priesthood ban, among other things.
    • One of the reasons I like biographies (and those listed, in particular) is that they make history personal and relatable. Moreover, none of those listed fall into the infallabilist hagiographies. Spencer Kimball actually told his son he wanted a warts-and-all biography.
  10. Go Forward With Faith: The Biography of Gordon B. Hinckley
    • Most missionaries are too young to remember anyone before Hinckley. This is the bio of the Prophet and President they grew up with, who also shaped much of the Church with his news and reporter-friendly ways.
  11. Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-day Saints in American Religion (Religion in America)
    • If missionaries are familiar with Apostolic interpretation through Seminary/Institute manuals, this book will help them characterize and understand the nature of those interpretations. They will also come to understand that such interpretations are not necessarily revealed or shared by other Apostles, and that there has been a variety of perspectives.
  12. A study Bible, or at least a modern translation like the NRSV.
    • This might be less necessary depending on the mission. Some missions are using modern foreign-language bibles, some are not. For some justification of this suggestion, see Grant Hardy’s article about how KJV usage has affected missionary work  (in Dialogue, earlier version here) and my article on Bible translations, the JST, and study suggestions, in Religious Educator.
  13. Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament/Jesus Christ and the World of the New Testament: A Latter-Day Saint Perspective
    1. These two volumes are some of the best work to come out of Deseret Book in recent years. Great for lighting a spark, and introductory Biblical literacy. Plus, lots of pictures.
    2. I reviewed JWOT quite favorably here and put it on my recommended Old Testament reading list.
  14. Scripture Study: Tools and Suggestions
    • If we’re going to be so focused on scripture, we should offer some models on how to do it right, and Jim Faulconer does a bang-up job.
  15. A brief history of whatever country they’re in (assuming outside the US). For me, I would have greatly appreciated something like A Traveller’s History Of France If in the US, I’d add The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life which is doctrinal, practical, preaches well, and can be appreciated by non-LDS as well as LDS.

Perhaps I’ll do a follow-up about articles and bibliographies.

What does your list look like, and why? What major holes have I left out in my rushed thought?

41 comments for “The Hypothetical “Missionary Library”

  1. Letters to a Young Mormon, by Adam Miller, and The God Who Weeps by Terryl Givens. Great, relevant, and fresh perspectives and ways to express concepts that Missionaries will be needing to address over and over again.

  2. Edward Kimball’s biography of his father, if only for the chapter on the Revelation on the Priesthood.

  3. Wish your list could be a syllabus for a two- or three-year study schedule for a Gospel Doctrine class. I would attend as opposed to volunteering for the nursery. 40+ years ago missionaries seemed to read Mormon Doctrine, Spiritual Roots to Human Relationships (Covey), Prophecy, Key to the Future, and the Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt. Our mission prez had everyone read How to win Friends and Influence People. One zone leader had everyone read Psycho-Cybernetics. Loren Dunn came for a visit and almost had a stroke. We were then under commandment to stick to the BOM.

  4. You could just assign Edward Kimball, “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood,” BYU Studies 47:2 (2008) instead of the entire biography.

    Matthew Bowman’s ‘The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith’ (Random House, 2012) would be an excellent single source for Church history.

    For understanding the Great Apostasy, ‘Standing Apart: Mormon Historical Consciousness and the Concept of Apostasy’, eds. Miranda Wilcox, John D. Young (Oxford University Press, 2014).

    ‘Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820-1844’, ed. John W. Welch (Deseret Book and BYU Press, 2005) is a really good resource.

  5. Last night two of our local missionaries attended Institute because they had an investigator there. We are doing “Teachings of the Living Prophets,” and for this week one of the students wanted to know what modern prophets have said about Heavenly Mother. So for class we read Paulsen and Pulido’s article in BYU Studies “A Mother There.” The article is fabulous as was the discussion. I’m not sure about adding it to the list, but if it could be a “downloadable option”….that might be useful for some.

  6. I considered Bowman and Wilcox et. al, but I confess to not having read either of them yet. I’ve only started on Letters to a Young Mormon. I don’t think I’ll get to Psycho-Cybernetics. That seems like the kind of thing GAs rightfully reactant against. I suppose the trick is to not overreact.

  7. Great idea, Ben, although everyone will have different ideas about the list. But a good non-KJV study bible is a real necessity as well as a good one-volume LDS history (Story of the Latter-day Saints). How Wide the Divide would be great. How about Stephen E. Robinson’s books, Believing Christ and Following Christ?

    The summer before I left I read How to Win Friends and Influence People and also Nibley’s An Approach to the Book of Mormon. Both very helpful. When serving in Geneva, Switzerland I hit the gold mine in the ward library: a bunch of Nibley books, including Since Cumorah and The World and the Prophets.

  8. While Wilcox et. al has some fantastic essays, if one was simply trying to provide a more nuanced approach to the Apostasy and the Middle Ages, the following articles would probably suffice:

    Eric R. Dursteler, “Inheriting the “Great Apostasy”: The Evolution of Latter-day Saint Views on the Middle Ages and the Renaissance”:

    He more-or-less covers the same ground in the more recent volume.

    Givens’ essay is available at his site. It’s entitled “‘We Have Only the Old Thing’: Rethinking Mormon Restoration”:

  9. It wasn’t necessarily approved, but one of my companions had bought the entire 7 volume History of the Church as edited by BH Roberts from the Church website. Yes I know now that it’s not an entirely trustworthy source, but I read through nearly all seven volumes in the four and a half months we were companions. It was definitely a fascinating read. Also outside of the official Missionary Library, I know many missionaries in my mission would buy Institute manuals off the church website and use them as study guides.

  10. Oh, and per Dave’s comment above – I read/listened to Robinson’s Believing Christ during one of the most trying portions of my mission. Someone had left behind the book on CD and my companion and I would listen to it while we were driving. It caused a major paradigm shift for me and really improved my understanding of my relationship with the Savior.

  11. Good list. I remember the Great Apostasy, Mormon Doctrine, the Miracle of Forgiveness, and Doctrines of Salvation were quite popular when I went on my mission. I remember a lot of anti-evolution attitudes. I used to be anti-evolution myself. I had to unlearn a lot of beliefs that I adopted on my mission.

  12. Good list, I’d also put in Madsen’s Eternal Man, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, In the Footsteps of Lehi, Early Christians in Disarray, Mike Ash on Shaken Faith Syndrome….

    Actually, what I would really wish upon missionaries is access and encouragement for an hour a day of free exploration of Jeff Lindsay’s LDS FAQ and the FAIRMormon site, along with the Maxwell Institute and BYU Studies sites.

  13. I’m currently ward mission leader, and I’ve printed off copies of all the new historical articles from’s Gospel Topics site and given them to the full-time missionaries so that they can be informed about those issues. They don’t cover as much as the books you propose, but I figure the articles give them a reasonable start, with the added benefits of being from an official source and not costing any money. I also print them off copies of any important missionary items in the news since they are often the last ones to hear about them (they had not known they were going to get iPads until I handed them the 1-month old MormonNewsroom article announcing that missionaries will get iPads!).

    I’m all in favor of beefing up the missionary library with some of the books on your list, but I think there’s also something to be said for limiting what missionaries have available. I read a lot of Church history and such before my mission, but on my mission I was forced to spend a lot more time in the scriptures and on fundamental principles, which in the long run was really good for me.

  14. I like some of the ideas–stocking apartments with the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, encouraging the use of a study Bible, distributing the new Gospel Topics articles from But not every missionary is Ben S. or Kevin Barney. Putting that list of books in front of the average missionary would be as daunting to them as tracting all day. Even now, I’ve read less than half of them and as a missionary, I would have struggled mightily with RSR or Mormonism in Transition (I mean staying awake, not dealing with the content).

  15. Sam, it is difficult for me to express how frustrated I am with this subject. First, I’m disappointed that there is a book list to begin with. This type of activity makes missionaries look like brainwashed members of a cult. Second, that the list is so short and only has “Mormon” subjects is equally depressing.

    Apostle Widtsoe constantly emphasized life-long learning. And that life-long learning needs to continue while serving as a missionary. If you are obsessed with religion 24/7, you lose your perspective. Some may say that is good and the nature of a mission. I don’t think it is. We need to encourage missionaries to read, and not just the scriptures.

    For me, including “How Wide the Divide” on your list is a travesty.

  16. Encyclopedia of Mormonism would be a great resource–not necessarily for reading cover-to-cover, but for research on specific topics. Many companionship arguments could be resolved by going to a source like that, especially if it was on an officially-approved list…

  17. You’ve got some of the edgier bios, but I think even the tame ones are worth reading. I particularly enjoyed Pres. Eyring’s and Elder Perry’s.

    I’d like to see more about women’s history/experience/theology on your list. Others will be able to recommend better stuff than I, but _Daughters in My Kingdom_ is better than nothing and _Women of Covenant_ is better than that. I wish I had even better titles to recommend, but . . .

    I think one problem with a limited list is that it sorta ends up implying that it is canonical (“everyone should read these”). I think a huge list that no one could possibly cover–maybe including everything in BYU Studies and The Religious Educator and Journal of Book of Mormon Studies and the BYU Women’s Conference volumes, for example–might help convey that this isn’t a “nihil obstat” reading list.

    Michael Austin’s _Job_ book should be on the list no matter what.

  18. Good thoughts, all.

    Julie and Kevin, I’m going for broad and introductory, so I’d avoid too narrow/technical on the short list (but include them in a “further readings” bibliography.) I’d also include in the introduction/caveats explanation of why these books, to avoid any kind of nihil obstat problems.

    Shamefully, I thought about “women’s history/experience/theology” but couldn’t come up with anything other than Neylan McBaine’s new book. I haven’t read it, though (which rules things out of my list), and don’t know how much it deals with history and background, as opposed to current structures, culture, and suggestions. The latter would be useful, but ideally I could find a single volume that would include a good bit of the former as well.

    Rogerdhansen- “This type of activity makes missionaries look like brainwashed members of a cult. ” Frankly, on the list of things that make us look cultish, this does not make the top 10. I think missionaries at minimum need some general guidelines, or it would be Harry Potter and (if we’re lucky) the Work and the Glory all the time.

  19. Here’s my (way too expansive) list (in no particular order):

    The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion – McMurrin
    Mormonism: A Very Short Introduction – Bushman
    Eternal Man – Madsen
    The God Who Weeps – Givens & Givens
    Fire On The Horizon – Ostler
    Mormons And The Bible – Barlow
    Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide – Hardy
    Joseph Smith: A Rough Stone Rolling – Bushman
    By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion – Givens

    And for toilet reading:
    The Problem of Theism And The Love of God – Ostler
    Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes – Charles Hartshorne

  20. At least for the Bible Belt where I served, I’d add the following

    In between RSR and Mormonism in Transition you really need something. Maybe BY: American Moses, which has overlap with RSR, but then goes on to a lot more. And missionaries are continually pummeled by anti-BY stuff.
    Massacre at Mountain Meadows – same thing, this is incident is a favorite of the anti-crowd. But maybe there’s a better source for the mission, a condensed article?
    Mormonism: A Very Short Introduction and The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction. Both of these really are great, short introductions that tackle the kinds of conversations missionaries are having everyday, and I think these are both simple and easy to grasp but have the potential to seriously increase missionary’s ability to speak to more educated audiences.
    Eyring’s Reflections of a Scientist or something along these lines. People still make a great deal of the conflict between science and religion, and missionaries often have no idea where we stand or how we ought to react, and consequently they too often default to lousy evangelical views.

    And I’ll second Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon and Eternal Man (I read the latter on my mission and passed it on to other missionaries as well). And the suggestion for the articles is a great one.

    As to Julie’s note, I think the entire church is starving for a faithful “women’s empowerment” type book, but it would have to walk the very difficult line of being faithful, uplifting and inspiring concerning the nature of women in the church while also candid about current difficulties and the need for change. The response to Sharon Eubank’s FAIR talk is telling.

    Here’s another suggestion: give them like 3-5 history books (missionaries really do need these, as do the church more generally) and the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, but have all other resources in the apartment libraries be scripture focused, and teach them how to use these resources. I’d give the the JPS Study Bible (OT) together with Harper’s Study Bible, Faulconer’s book which you recommend and other things of that sort. Really emphasize to the missionaries that not only is this a time where they can learn what all’s actually in the scriptures (i.e., do what they should’ve done for the last four years in seminary but which, alas, they didn’t do), but also much more about what the scriptures are and how to effectively study them. Then make your scripture study plan much more robust than what you describe above – not merely reading, and with requirements that continue throughout no matter what else they study. Beyond that, you might have an expansive bibliography rather than a merely introductory one.

  21. Ben, Maybe limit books to non-fiction. But that would exclude important religious tomes like “L’Etranger,” “Les Miserable,” and “Moby Dick.” Maybe limiting reading to non-fiction and classical literature might work.

    While the missionary reading list may not make your top 10 reasons why Mormonism looks like a cult, it certainly helps reinforce the stereotype. And is mind numbing to the missionaries who take it seriously.

  22. I have read every one of the suggested books and I am a high school history teacher by profession. You need to remember that many missionaries are barely high school grads. Your list is way off the mark the reading these young people need and can be expected to consume.

  23. Ben, I hate to criticize, but I think you have missed a major reason for why the list of books available to missionaries is so short: translation.

    There is a significant proportion of missionaries who don’t read English, as I think most of us know. In addition, missionaries serving in non-English-speaking missions are encouraged to study the mission language, and reading Church materials in those languages helps.

    Unfortunately, not one of the works on your list has been translated into ANY other language.

    IMO, this is a major stumbling block for the development of Mormonism in other languages.

  24. That may well be a factor, Kent. But I’d argue the other direction.
    I’m not intending these titles for general distribution, but for missionaries. Nearly every non-English missionary is learning some English, or trying to. What better way than to read the literature in English?
    I’d also note, the only missionary I’ve had ask me for books (he’s working on #3 and 4 right now) is Peruvian, and speaks with a definite accent.

    I’d love to get these translated, but I don’t see lack of translation as sufficient reason to not make them available.

  25. Ben, Old Man’s comment is right on the mark. Pare your list down to no more than five books that are accessible to high school graduates and where most or all stakeholders will support giving them semi-canonical status. A few of the biographies you suggest might fit that description, and I like the idea of adding a study Bible, and a copy of the EOM for each apartment. For some areas that you’d like to cover, there may not be anything published right now that would work.

  26. Hum… Things that make us look like a cult? Censoring reading material has got to be in the top 10. How many churches limit their youths literature to the scriptures plus four other books? Sadly, an approved list seams necessary. It turns out when someone is forced to abandon all interests outside of religion ‘deep doctrine’ (i.e. the weird things church leaders say) becomes really fascinating. The lists most important purpose may be to protect missionaries from the church’s own past. I’m not sure the books mentioned here fit the bill.

  27. This post really has me thinking… We really need shorter works that deal with LDS history and theology geared towards a less-academic young adult (which is where a majority of our adults are at IMHO). Our more academic faithful kids can be directed to most of these works as they mature. Do we have writers out there who can write LDS history that both challenges and edifies? Can we teach more nuanced history and theology without bludgeoning minds and testimonies?

    The need and market is there, as evidenced by the success of Gerald Lund’s historical fiction (which I personally did not like). I think people, especially young people, want to know, but there are put off by scholarly works, or they lack the skills and depth to cope with such works. Can someone bridge the gap between Lund and Bushman? Between Seminary and Givens/Ostler?

    We often discuss how the internet has aimed the most difficult aspects of our history and doctrine directly at our most vulnerable. But educated authors have done little to help those young people navigate that information.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post and comments.

  28. Thanks Julie, I will take a look at it.

    Ben, I am not opposed to reaching. But I do believe that we need to assist those unable to make the gap in one leap, especially in the mission field.

  29. Lots of these books are great, but I think part of the wisdom in the restrictive list is based on a general lack of scriptural familiarity for new missionaries (relatively speaking). I regret wasting time reading doctrines of salvation on my mission when I could have been reading the OT, NT, BoM, D&C, or PoGP more.

  30. I think the young elders and sisters should spend most of their time learning the scriptures. I agree with a limited set of books, though I do not really care for the set they currently have. Instead, I would recommend a reading list of good articles that give some depth to concepts they will need to know, rather than long history books on Brigham Young, Joseph Smith, etc. Long books would become a distraction to them seeking to build a spiritual testimony. Miller’s book is small enough and potent enough (and geared towards young Mormons) that I would include it. Rough Stone Rolling is awesome, but too cumbersome and distracting for most missionaries. Encyclopedia of Mormonism may offer them the article length information they need on many issues, but is outdated on many topics.
    A good list of 20 page articles that could be updated easily may be a better solution to helping the missionaries better prepare.

  31. I’m a Miltonist, so if I were a mission president I’d tell my missionaries to read widely and promiscuously. Not for entertainment, but to better understand the world around them. Assuming this is an option, I’d tell them to get a library card. I certainly did as a missionary, and I put it to good use, working through Kierkegaard, Danish poetry, and all sorts of other stuff in Danish and in English. I also read LDS books that were lying about, and of course the scriptures. Putting all of this stuff in a grand mash helped make my mission a very formative experience. I feel like the lit helped me work through a lot of junk from my teenage years, such that I emerged somewhat more mature at the end. I’d encourage the exercise of intellectual/spiritual exploration more than I’d recommend any particular list.

  32. Eighteen year olds with very limited reading experience (many get high school diplomas without having read a single book); a worldwide book list I think is problematic. Even Jesus the Christ by Talmage is a distraction (and horribly dated, verbose, and redundant). I would have my missionaries stick to the scriptures, with a side policy that if they wanted to study something they could get whatever they needed as approved by an AP or Mission President.

  33. Where did you people find all this time for reading on your missions? I’m as big a book addict as the next gal, but I was always either working or falling into bed, dog-tired.

  34. SBA- In the morning, I read my Book of Mormon and NT. Mealtimes, evenings, p-day, and busses with no one else one them found me reading other books.

    John- While it’s overwhelmingly important to study scripture as our primary source, in order to really understand it, at some point one must study something external to it. But as a MP, I’d probably be fairly structured, since I’d want my missionaries to spend most of their time in “quality” material.

  35. I read Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith on my mission. Not only did this strengthen my calling of him as a prophet, my understanding of church doctrine and temple ordinances grew substantially. It was a real eye opener for me.

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