By Sharon Lindbloom
21 June 2016
On June 11th (2016) The Salt Lake Tribune reported an odd Mormon-related story. Four LDS missionaries got in trouble with local authorities in Mexico for attempting to baptize three young brothers (a 9-year-old and 11-year-old twins) without their parents’ permission. Even stranger, the boys didn’t want to be baptized. The Salt Lake Tribune explained,
“…the missionaries promised the boys food to persuade them to go to a church, where they asked the boys to change into baptismal clothing. The boys became afraid, left the area and told their parents what had happened…”
The boys’ father contacted the police and the missionaries were subsequently detained, but soon released because they had not actually committed a crime.
A few days later The Salt Lake Tribune followed up with this:
“Teaching or baptizing minors without the consent of parents or guardians is against a longtime policy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“‘Unfortunately, these missionaries acted outside of church policy,’ Eric Hawkins, an LDS Church spokesman, said Monday. ‘They have been corrected and moved out of the area.’”
While this sort of missionary approach is certainly not condoned in the LDS Church today, for a brief time in the late 1950s and early 1960s that wasn’t the case. During that time, a “Youth Baptism Program” resulted in a “New Era” of Mormon missionary success that brought thousands of adolescent boys into the Church.
LDS apostle Henry D. Moyle (then serving in the First Presidency) created this new program which was later nicknamed the “Basketball Program,” the “Beach Party Program,” or the “Baseball Baptism Program,” depending on which approach the corresponding mission employed. Some specifics of the Mormon “Youth Baptism Program” were described in an article written in 1993 by then-LDS historian D. Michael Quinn:
“With little or no gospel instruction, pre-adolescent and teenage boys were joining the LDS church by tens of thousands annually throughout the world. As a seventeen-year-old, I listened to the homecoming address in my Southern California ward of a missionary who said he had baptized more than two hundred teenage boys in the Pacific Northwest. I regarded that as faith-promoting until a few years later, when I listened to the complaints of a bishop from the Portland area.
“His ward clerk was swamped with membership certificates for dozens of boys that no one in the ward had met. After the bishop began locating them, he heard an identical story. A pair of LDS missionaries had played basketball with the boys who were usually underprivileged or from single-parent homes. The elders told them of free trips throughout the Northwest to compete against LDS ward teams, and of the all-Church tournament in Salt Lake City for the best basketball teams. The only catch was that missionaries told the boys they had to be baptized into the LDS church in order to play on its ‘athletic teams.’ After the baptism ceremony (usually on the first day of contact), the missionaries gave the boys the time and place of local LDS meetings. These Portland area boys never saw those elders again.
“A Mississippi convert described a variation on this approach in the Gulf States Mission in the early 1960s. Missionary sisters and elders combed up-country towns and hamlets for boys who had never seen the Gulf of Mexico. During the several-hour bus or car ride to the beach, the missionaries taught the boys all six [missionary] discussions at once. When they reached the sugar-white sands of the Gulf, the first order of business was multiple-baptism ceremonies in the gently lapping surf. If the boys did not comply, the vehicle would turn immediately around and take the boys back home. After hours of fun in the sun, the newly baptized learned that the missionaries would be glad to bring them back to the beach again – if each boy brought along at least one unbaptized friend…
“A speaker at a Brigham Young University ‘devotional’ in the 1962-63 school year startled the audience by criticizing another example of the “New Era” missionary work. A pair of elders visited a playground in the eastern states and offered an ice cream soda to every boy over the age of eight who would accept baptism that afternoon.” (“I-Thou vs. I-It Conversions: The Mormon ‘Baseball Baptism’ Era,” Sunstone, December 1993, 34)
This type of proselytizing approach was implemented all around the world. Dr. Quinn noted that in Great Britain, for example, some Mormon missionaries invited boys to join a “baseball club” with a special “initiation ceremony” (baptism) held at a local YMCA. “These British boys thought they had simply joined an American baseball club,” he explained.
The intent for the “Youth Baptism Program” was that missionaries would get written permission for LDS baptisms from the boys’ parents. But because the missionaries had been given baptism quotas they were pressured to meet, some decided they would be more successful if they just asked parents to give permission for their sons to merely join a sports club; and sometimes the missionaries didn’t seek parental permission at all.
As in the recent case of the Mexican missionaries’ shenanigans, these baptism deceptions caused hard feelings among the parents. Dr. Quinn wrote,
“The English, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh ‘under-class’ absorbed the brunt of the baseball baptism abuses in Britain. Families ‘on the dole’ had been impressed by the slick-looking, smooth-talking American missionaries. Their children thought they had joined an American baseball club, but later discovered that they were part of a church that made demands of them. Many parents were so bitter that they could hardly speak civilly to a Mormon… [In some places] the residents threw stones at them. That was not some pathological anti-Mormonism, but a direct result of the deceptive baptism of adolescent boys into a Mormon ‘baseball club.’” (38)
Unlike the recent ploy of Mormon missionaries who lured kids to church with the promise of food, the LDS Baseball Baptism Program of the last century was an official Mormon missionary strategy that was in place for several years. But it didn’t turn out well for the LDS Church. In a section of his article titled “Cleaning Up the Mess,” Dr. Quinn wrote of “mass excommunications” required on the mission field for “inactive” members who never wanted to be Mormons:
“…the total missionfield excommunications numbered in the tens of thousands during 1965. The vast majority of these excommunications were undoubtedly baseball-baptism boys.
“…the total excommunications of baseball baptism ‘converts’ may have reached or exceeded 100,000 throughout the entire Church.” (40)
Amidst great loss of membership, bad press, and angry communities, the Mormon Church learned a lesson with the mid-century Baseball Baptism Program. But apparently still struggling with quota-driven proselytizing as late as 1983, Gordon B. Hinckley appealed to new mission presidents:
“With all the powers of persuasion that I am capable of, I plead with you to train and motivate your missionaries to the point of view that it is converts they are out to win, rather than numbers of baptisms for the sake of a good statistical record.” (quoted by Dr. Quinn, 41)
Perhaps the four overly-enthusiastic Mormon missionaries in Mexico need to hear that.