In a recent worldwide broadcast, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced new approaches to missionary work. As the father of a current missionary son in England, I wondered how this change might affect him. Missionaries now will use social media to reach investigators, and LDS Church buildings will be open for tours and visits by those investigating the church rather than being closed most of the time. President Thomas S. Monson declared that the Lord "will assist us in our labors if we will act in faith …"
These recent announcements reminded me of another one made by an LDS Church president nearly 40 years ago. That proclamation was similar in its dramatic tone in terms of how missionary work would occur in the future. One significant difference with that announcement was the effect on global politics.
In 1974, President Spencer W. Kimball prophesied that the day would come when LDS missionaries would be able to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in nations where missionary work was now prohibited. He called on the church to spread the gospel to "all the world." He could see in vision a large missionary force spreading across the globe to hundreds of nations rather than just the ones the church operated in at that time.
But he also said that the LDS Church was not ready for this to happen. He urged members to plead with the Lord to open these nations to proselyting efforts. President Kimball was asking members to pray to soften leaders' hearts, but perhaps he was also asking the Lord to soften LDS Church members' hearts to be prepared for the momentous changes that would come to the church institutionally and their lives individually as missionary work spread to areas and nations not within the traditional European heritages. Indeed, some of these people to whom the Gospel would go were, at that time, citizens of nations considered political and military enemies of the United States.
I must admit that as a political scientist, I questioned how soon this might happen. After all, Soviet leaders controlled not only the Soviet Union but also most of Eastern Europe, China was in the throes of the cultural revolution, and the ban on blacks holding the priesthood made missionary work in the vast majority of Africa impossible. I could not imagine these leaders allowing religious missionaries through their borders to operate freely. Frankly, I thought President Kimball's prophecy would not occur in my lifetime.
How wrong I was. Sixteen years after President Kimball's prophetic announcement, I stood in front of the Berlin Wall and chipped a piece of brick off it as a souvenir. A few days later, I stood in Wenceslas Square as hundreds of thousands of Czechs celebrated the Velvet Revolution that overthrew the communist government. Ten years later, our eldest son was called to serve in Moscow, Russia as an LDS missionary. Today, I have students from former communist nations in my classes.
And there is more. China is opening to the world culturally and economically. Political change will occur there before long. Certainly, the LDS Church has made inroads. An LDS temple sits on Chinese territory. Branches of the church are all over China. One of my sons spent five months teaching English in western China and went to a local LDS branch every Sunday.
The revelation on the priesthood changed missionary work in Africa. LDS meetinghouses and temples now dot that continent. Whether the Arab Spring will open nations in the Middle East to religious freedom, and missionaries, is still an open question. However, the events in the past 40 years in other parts of the world make me more reluctant to conclude change cannot happen there.
As we discuss and debate politics and perhaps assert our own opinions as the ways things are and must be, it may be good, at least on occasion, to recognize how small we are and how powerful God is, even in the affairs of state.
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU. Email: Richard_Davis@byu.edu