Fifty years ago as he closed the April 1959 general conference, President David O. McKay twice pronounced the phrase "every member a missionary." That simple, four-word statement immediately thrust missionary work into the consciousness of the general Church membership and has since thrived over the past half-century as an oft-repeated reminder.
"I think it was revolutionary, because the members of the Church up until that time had felt no responsibility for missionary work," said Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve, recalling that the full-time missionaries — comprised mostly of young men — did virtually all of the proselyting work of that day, with little involvement from the members.
"Here was a new vision, a new responsibility for bringing the nonmembers into an opportunity to be taught the gospel," he said. "I think it was one of the most exciting statements, and it has endured — it hasn't diminished in any way since that period of time."
Elder Perry and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve recently met with the Church News to talk about the legacy of President McKay's "every member a missionary" adage as well as the ongoing challenges and opportunities of involving Church members in missionary work. The two are joined by Bishop Richard C. Edgley of the Presiding Bishopric to comprise the Missionary Executive Committee.
An 18-year-old in April of 1959, Elder Holland remembers President McKay's statement and the ensuing emphasis on missionary work it brought as catalysts for lowering the minimum age for full-time male missionaries to 19, with Elder Holland later among the Church's first groups of 19-year-old elders.
"I've always felt a personal indebtedness to President McKay for putting that spotlight on missionary work. It allowed me to go on my mission sooner than others had been able, and my mission changed my life — as all missions do for young people," said Elder Holland. "I am very grateful for that missionary moment in Church history."
Elder Perry said the "every member a missionary" pronouncement caused all members to feel "a little twinge of conscience" that they hadn't done more before to share the gospel.
"I think that started all of us thinking about being more involved in missionary work than we had ever been," he said. "We're just not very good at that sort of thing – and we still have a lot to learn about bringing the gospel to the people."
Elder Holland said the developing message of "every member a missionary" over the past five decades can be likened to Church leaders putting emphasis on family matters in the early 1900s, thus helping the Church have a family-oriented foundation in place to counter modern-day attacks on the family nearly a century later.
"I think the same timing applies to 'every member a missionary,' " he said. "I am sure it was important in 1959 — I've already said I was blessed by it, and the whole Church became more conscious of the need to do missionary work — but I think that concept is even more important today."
Noting the challenge of gated communities and a security-minded society facing full-time missionaries, Elder Holland added: "Whatever the cultural climate and neighborhood challenges were in 1959, it's a half-century more difficult than that now. It is very, very difficult for missionaries to get to some doors, let alone in some doors. In many locations, member-missionary work is the only kind of missionary work we're going to be able to do. And who knows what comparable difficulties the future holds?"
Even today, members should still feel a twinge of conscience when reminded of their proclaiming responsibilities.
"Members have never become bold enough in declaring the gospel," Elder Perry said. "We need to be more bold. We have the greatest story on earth to tell. My goodness, when you look at the credits the Church has — our relationships, our morality, our industry and our desire to serve — we have so much to offer the world. Yet still we keep our light under a bushel and don't reveal it to the world like we should. I think we're still very reluctant to move out of our comfort zone and say something to someone."
Both apostles concur that in order to speak of the gospel, a member should first be a friend and learn how to listen to others.
"These people say something in their remarks to you, if you're listening properly, that will trigger an idea or something the Church does in an exceptional way that will help them understand who we are and what we're doing," Elder Perry said. "But we don't spend enough time being a friend and listening."
Elder Holland agreed. "As a rule, members are terrified of the missionary challenge because they don't know what to say. They're afraid they have to give the King Follett discourse or something comparable in order to impress a nonmember. They perspire and get weak in the knees about 'What am I going to say?' . . .
"Trust me — you don't have to worry about what to say; they will tell you. If you are genuinely interested in them, they will tell you something of their concerns and their hopes. And that is your chance to tell them some truth or share with them some program that the Church offers."
The preaching and testifying efforts of missionary work haven't changed over the centuries and millennia, Elder Perry said. "If the members could understand and apply the basics, I think it would be a light to them," he said. "I think that was the spark President McKay brought with this message. It's something we've always known, something we should have always been doing. But suddenly it was a spark that united the members and brought a new feeling in the Church."
Elder Holland emphasized that the simple act of members opening their mouths to speak is the most fundamental step of missionary work. He noted that Satan was mindful of the power of our speech when he tried to bind the tongue of Joseph Smith in the moments prior to the First Vision.
"I think that was a powerful lesson in the Sacred Grove even before the Vision came — that the adversary was worried about anyone who was willing to talk about the gospel or use that same voice to call upon God for help in spreading the truth," Elder Holland said. "Lucifer wins in this battle if we stop talking or stop praying about this. We can't — we mustn't. Too many people still need to know the same truth Joseph went into that grove to find."
President David Oman McKay
Born: Sept. 8, 1873, Huntsville, Utah
College: Weber Stake Academy, University of Utah
Mission: Scotland, 1897-98
Married: Emma Ray Riggs, Jan. 2, 1901
Apostle: called as an apostle, April 9, 1906; also concurrently served as general superintendent of the Sunday School (1918-34), Church Commissioner of Education (1919-21) and president of the European Mission (1922-24); served 44 years in the Quorum of the Twelve.
Sustained as First Presidency second counselor to President Heber J. Grant, Oct. 6, 1934; to President George Albert Smith, May 21, 1950.
Sustained as President of the Church: April 9, 1951, age 77; served 19 years as president of the Church; during his tenure, President McKay expanded the vision of the Church's worldwide mission, authorized the creation of the first non-English speaking stakes outside of the United States and strengthened Church membership with a renewed emphasis on the value of family life and education.
Died: Jan. 18, 1970, in Salt Lake City, Utah, at the age of 96.
Conference excerpts, 1959
Excerpts of President David O. McKay's concluding address of the April 1959 General Conference, with his remarks given Monday, April 6, 1959:
"Now I should like to say, brothers and sisters, the Lord bless us with a desire to live better than we have ever done before. No individual can go away from this conference, even as a listener, without a heavier responsibility upon him. One of the happiest experiences that I have had has been to meet young people, and hear the young man or young woman say, as he or she introduced his or her companion, 'I want you to meet my friend who is an investigator.' And that has happened frequently during this conference.
"In 1923 in the British Mission there was a general instruction sent out to the members of the Church advocating what Brother Gordon B. Hinckley has emphasized today. We did not spend money advertising in the press. The feeling in England was quite bitter at that time, but we said: 'Throw the responsibility of the Church that in the coming year of 1923 every member will be a missionary. Every member a missionary. You may bring your mother into the Church, or it may be your father; perhaps your fellow companion in the workshop. Somebody will hear the good message of the truth through you.'
"And that is the message today. Every member — a million and a half — a missionary! I think that is what the Lord had in mind when he gave that great revelation on Church government, as recorded in the 107th section of the Doctrine and Covenants. He describes the Melchizedek Priesthood and the men who stand at the head of that priesthood, and the Aaronic Priesthood and the presidency of the Aaronic Priesthood, those who are active in the priesthood quorums — both the Melchizedek and the Aaronic. He then goes into detail about the duties of members and concludes:
" 'Wherefore, now let every man learn his duty, and to act in the office in which he is appointed, in all diligence.
" 'He that is slothful shall not be counted worthy to stand, and he that learns not his duty and shows himself not approved shall not be counted worthy to stand. Even so. Amen' (Doctrine and Covenants 107:99-100).
"I think that includes the father of a little girl who sent a letter to me this week. She first gave her age. She loved her father and mother, she said. But 'Father doesn't take Mother to the temple. I wish he would. I love them both, and I want to be sealed to them.' 'Wherefore, now let every man learn his duty and walk in the performances of it in all diligence.' That is the responsibility of every man and woman and child who has listened to this great conference, to the inspiring messages of the Council of the Twelve and other General Authorities.
"God help us to be true to our responsibility and to our callings, and especially to the responsibility we bear as fathers and mothers of the children of Zion — heaven's treasures given to us.
"O Father, bless those who hold this priesthood who have been married in accordance with thy instructions, and God help all to take advantage of this eternal blessing, that we may be united together and with thee forever, I pray in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen."
Also in 1959 conference
Speaking earlier in the April 1959 General Conference was Elder Gordon B. Hinckley, then an Assistant to the Council of the Twelve.
His talk, which was acknowledged by President David O. McKay in the latter's conference-concluding address, included a five-point program for Church members to better be involved with missionary work.
Elder Hinckley's five points included:
1. "That we cultivate in our homes a proper attitude toward missionary service. . . .
2. "That we foster training for missionary service. . . .
3. "That we make financial preparations. . . .
4. "That we see that our public and private deportment backs up the missionary cause. . . .
5. "That we all get the missionary spirit, that we seek opportunities to teach the gospel, to distribute the Book of Mormon, to let people know what we believe."