PROVO — Fifty years ago last month, newly called missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints going to two foreign-language missions began receiving preparatory language instruction in Provo prior to their departure.
"Tonight, we join in joyous jubilee to commemorate 50 years of missionary training here," said Elder Russell M. Nelson of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Tuesday evening at the regular weekly devotional at today's sprawling Missionary Training Center, located just north and east of the Brigham Young University campus.
Speaking to the young men and women and couples bound for LDS missions in many parts of the world, Elder Nelson also gave a dedicatory prayer for five buildings at the center that were renovated this year.
In addition to other general authorities of the church who attended, 11 past presidents of the center, which was dedicated 36 years ago by church President Spencer W. Kimball, came for the devotional. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve also spoke briefly.
"For many years in the 20th century," Elder Nelson recounted, "newly called missionaries had received some preparatory instruction at the Missionary Home in Salt Lake City. On Dec. 14, 1961, 14 elders assigned to Argentina and 15 elders assigned to Mexico moved from the Missionary Home to the newly created Missionary Language Institute on the Brigham Young University campus in Provo."
Those missionaries walked the four-mile distance from the Hotel Roberts to the BYU Alumni House for instruction, Elder Nelson related. "With very little fanfare, formal language training for missionaries was thus begun in this dispensation."
Following much progress and many changes, he said, the Missionary Training Center — then called the Language Training Mission — was constructed. It was dedicated in 1976 by President Kimball.
Elder Nelson said President Kimball's prayer that "every nation, kindred, tongue and people may hear the world of the Lord in their own language" is being fulfilled as missionary work in the church progresses "in remarkable ways."
"One of those ways is the establishment of other missionary training centers," he said. "In 1978, missionary training centers were opened in Sao Paulo, Brazil; and in Hamilton, New Zealand. Today there are 15 missionary training centers in operation around the world to accommodate the growth and training of newly called missionaries. We are grateful for each of them."
He noted that the 1 millionth LDS missionary to serve since the church was organized in 1830 entered the Provo Missionary Training Center in June 2007.
"In the 50 years that have elapsed since 1961, more than 680,000 missionaries have received their training here in Provo, Utah," he said.
Beginning in 1978, two years after the Provo center opened, missionaries going to English-speaking missions were assigned to the center for preparatory instruction along with those going to foreign-language missions. It was then that the name was changed to Missionary Training Center.
Prior to the advent of formal language instruction 50 years ago, LDS missionaries in foreign-language missions were expected to learn the language as best they could while serving in the countries to which they were sent. Instead of the customary two-year duration for English-speaking missions, their missions were 2 1/2 years in length because of the extra time needed to learn the language well enough to teach prospective converts.
Today, LDS missionaries learning a language spend two months at the Provo center or one of the missionary training centers in other locales before going to their assigned missions. English speaking missionaries spend three weeks.
"Elders and sisters, you now are part of this vast army of missionaries," Elder Nelson said to the devotional congregation. "You, like those who have served before, have been called to invite others to come unto Christ. Your task is to help others receive the gospel that was restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith. This gospel, which the Savior Himself proclaimed as the doctrine of Christ, demonstrates our faith in Him. It affirms our gratitude for His atonement. It invites us to repent of all transgressions that are contrary to the teachings and commandments of God."
In his brief remarks, Elder Holland admonished his listeners that they are duty-bound to honor the position and role of missionary and "the great missionaries who have come before and will come after you."