PROVO — There was a time in LDS Church history when missionaries met for training in the basement of an old home with a dirt floor, no window and a single light bulb hanging from a wire in the middle of the room.
For the last 40 years, missionaries have assembled for up to nine hours a day in small, dimly lit classrooms with low ceilings, at times feeling claustrophobic and wishing for more fresh air.
Those days are over.
Visitors who come to see the newly expanded Provo MTC campus of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will find more spacious classrooms with larger windows for natural lighting, more outdoor gathering places, more technology and more artwork designed with inspiring missionary messages.
After years of experience and research by the church, Gary L. Crittenden, managing director of the church's Missionary Department, feels the new facilities represent a nice evolution in the church's ability to teach and train missionaries.
"We have learned a lot more about how people learn," Crittenden said. "Much of what has been incorporated here reflects our best understanding of the kind of environment you need to create to help people learn."
Sister Bonnie L. Oscarson, Young Women general president and a member of the Missionary Executive Council, agreed that "creating a comfortable, bright and pleasant atmosphere can have a tremendous influence on a missionary's ability to learn and feel the Spirit."
"This building represents the emphasis the church has always placed on the importance of missionary work," Sister Oscarson said. "It shows that we really do place a great value on preparing our missionaries for this experience and taking the gospel to the world."
Crittenden, Sister Oscarson, Provo MTC President David C. Martino and Kelly Mills, administrative director of all the church's MTCs, all participated in a tour of the new facilities with members of the media Wednesday. The tour included stops in older parts of the MTC, with its box-like brick buildings, in contrast with the recently completed landscaped grounds and towering glass-filled buildings.
The public is invited to tour the new facilities from July 31 to Aug. 19.
Missionaries haven't always had it so good.
The idea of training missionaries can be traced back to 1832 when Joseph Smith organized the School of the Prophets in Kirtland, Ohio, according to mtc.byu.edu. It was on the second floor of the Newel K. Whitney mercantile store where some early leaders smoked and chewed tobacco, which led to Joseph Smith receiving the revelation known as the Word of Wisdom in Doctrine and Covenants Section 89.
The Salt Lake Mission Home was established in 1925. Missionaries, then set apart by a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, stayed at the home for only a day or two before traveling to their assigned areas. Those waiting for visas served as guides on Temple Square or were put to work at LDS Church headquarters. The Salt Lake Mission Home continued to host English-speaking missionaries until the 1970s, the Encyclopedia of Mormonism reports.
During the 1960s and 1970s, foreign-speaking missionaries gathered at the Language Training Mission (LTM) in Provo, which included dormitories and classrooms. They learned Spanish, Portuguese and German. In 1968, the LTM began teaching 16 languages and offering Dutch and Scandinavian languages at Ricks College and Asian-Pacific languages at the Church College of Hawaii.
Crittenden recalled spending time at the LTM when it was on the south end of Brigham Young University's campus in 1972. He and other missionaries attempted to learn a foreign language on a small cement patio next to a noisy apartment building. He's grateful that missionaries coming to the Provo MTC from now on won't have to deal with such distractions.
"Anyone who has been here over the last 45 or 50 years, they have had very small spaces and older buildings in which they have learned," Crittenden said. "This is an open, what we hope, very inviting space for the missionaries, where they have the opportunity to study and be influenced by the spirit of God."
The first facilities of the Provo MTC were dedicated in 1976, with more buildings added in 1978. At that point, the other locations closed and all missionaries came to Provo, Mills said.
Mills recalled his own MTC experience of learning Japanese in 1985 and said it's important to note the curriculum and overall experience of training missionaries has not changed since then over the years. But the new facilities have enhanced the experience, as shown by the positive difference administrators have noticed since missionaries moved in six weeks ago.
"I think it has enhanced the experience," Mills said. "What the facility has done is create a more comfortable environment. There is more space, more light, more places to go outside, more flexibility in the schedule, more technology. I think that has made it a better experience for missionaries."
Mills also referenced the many signs with scriptural phrases, life-size murals depicting scriptural stories and other artwork found around the campus designed to create opportunities for missionaries to ponder and learn.
"I love that they have chosen people from the scriptures that have something to do with missionary work," Sister Oscarson said. "They have a lot of artwork that portrays women in the scriptures, which with our increased number of sister missionaries, is a great message for them to see. Each piece of artwork is like a lesson in and of itself. ... Learning is always enhanced when you see a visual."
Outside of Provo, the LDS Church has established missionary training centers.
With the Provo expansion, there have been upgrades to MTCs in São Paulo, Brazil; Hamilton, New Zealand; Mexico City; Santiago, Chile; Manila, Philippines; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Guatemala City, Guatemala; Lima, Peru; Preston, England; Bogatá, Colombia; Madrid, Spain; Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic; Accra, Ghana; and Johannesburg, South Africa. The church recently upgraded the MTCs in the Philippines (capacity increased from 140 to 280) and Ghana (from 90 to 320), Mills said.
Before the addition, capacity at the Provo MTC was 2,700. The new capacity is 3,700. Between Provo and all the international MTC facilities, the church should be set for the next 10 years, Mills said.
When President Martino was a missionary in the LTM in 1972, preparing to serve in Italy, there were about 16,000 missionaries. Now as president of the MTC, with the new buildings and resources, he has marveled at the way the Lord is orchestrating the work.
"The world today is different than it was 45 years ago. The missionaries have a lot more to experience, a lot more to endure, and as they learn, there is a lot more to prepare for as they go into the world," President Martino said.
"I think (these new facilities are) a good sign of the way the Lord is hastening his work in preparing the missionaries to go out in the world to prepare the world for Christ’s second coming. It’s an amazing experience here as you see miracle after miracle each and every day."