Kaitlyn Jensen and Faculty Mentor: Gregory Wilkinson, Church History
In the early years of the Latter-day Saint church a mission to Japan was opened in an effort to continue the spread of the gospel and the advancement of a worldwide church but in terms of evangelical success the mission was largely ineffective. The focus of this project has been to delve into the methods of evangelism in order to understand and contextualize the failure of the Japan mission. The experiences of Jay Clair Jensen and other LDS missionaries at the time have offered a clearer picture of the underlying problems that stymied the mission.
The project began with a focus on connecting the accounts of several missionaries serving in the early to mid-years of the Japan mission. This was done through annotating and creating references in the journals of Jay Clair Jensen whose writings give a very thorough account of the daily life of a missionary to Japan at the time. These annotations required further close reading of Jensen’s journals and those of Alma O. Taylor and H. Grant Ivins whose missions overlapped Jensen’s. In order to prepare a more comprehensive analysis of the mission as a whole and the way in which Jensen’s experiences typify it, additional sources were consulted on the nature of the History of Christianity in Japan and the research that has been done on the first Japan mission. These works include, Handbook of Christianity in Japan by Mark R. Mullins, Early Mormon Missionary Activities in Japan, 1901-1924: Strangers in a Strange Land by Reid L. Neilson, and Taking the Gospel to the Japanese by Reid L. Neilson and Van C. Gessel.
Following the completion of the annotation of Jensen’s journal, I presented a paper at The Western Conference for the Association of Asian Studies on the ways in which Jay Clair Jensen’s journals reflect the overall issues and experiences of a typical LDS missionary to Japan at the time. In my findings I asserted that the main problems that Jensen faced stemmed from flaws in the overall method of evangelism that the missionaries were taught, or what Reid L. Neilson calls the “Euro American Missionary Model.” This model was a method of evangelizing developed by the LDS church based on successes in Europe and America, which, unlike Japan, were both audiences with a heavy Christian background. It relied heavily on teaching that the LDS church traced back to Jesus Christ and that the gospel was directly restored from Him in the west. It emphasized methods of tracting and personal contacting while encouraging the missionaries to remain outsiders to Japanese culture and social issues. This methodology encouraged missionaries to preach the gospel as they would in any other country and that encouragement ignored the cultural differences of Japan. In the journals of Jensen I found examples of members that had joined the church and investigators that met with the missionaries that were put off by many of these practices and teachings. The journals of Alma O. Taylor and H. Grant Ivins offered additional personal perspectives on these examples and it was often made very clear that the missionaries themselves felt that what they were being taught was ill suited to the people that they were attempting to evangelize to. As one example, Jensen shares the experience of a man leaving the church because he felt that he could not be loyal to his country and to his church at the same time. This man felt that the gospel that the missionaries were preaching was far too centered on the concept of America as the Promised Land and he believed that as a man cannot serve two masters, he could not be true to his emperor and God if his God were such an American God. Taylor’s account augments Jensen’s retelling of the issue with personal letters from the individual and further shows the issue that comes with preaching the gospel from a heavily western perspective.
The inadequacies of the Euro-American Model were likely the greatest challenge to the Japan mission and they proved to be challenges that could not be overcome at the time. The mission was closed and in the end few had been baptized, but what it holds now is a lesson and new perspective for future missionaries. This mode ignored cultural differences and in some ways encouraged disrespect for differences in individuals. Additionally the early Japanese missionaries were rigid in their methods even when they proved fruitless. Thus, future missionaries should work to understand the people that they teach and they should be open to adaptations that would better suit the individual. Although there were many missionaries that came to be more understanding of the people of Japan with time, this was often too little and too late. If the missionaries in Japan had worked harder towards understanding early on it is possible that results would have been better.
There were many missionaries that blamed the Japanese people for the lack of success in proselyting in Japan, considering them stubborn or unprepared to receive the gospel, yet others recognized that their methods were misguided and a poor fit. The former would begrudge and blame while the latter would hold out with faith and hope. I believed that these choices on attitude and perspective determined the level to which each individual succeeded in his mission. Their personal experiences do show that on the whole, the mission was stymied by a misunderstanding of Japanese culture and history and a system that was mistaken in its methods, however, they also show that on the individual level success or failure was a matter of perspective. Jensen shows this well through his transformation during his mission as in the beginning he was more apt to ridicule the people for their unwillingness to listen and learn yet, over time he befriended many people that he met and on his parting he expressed his deep love and admiration for the Japanese people. His experience demonstrates that the difference is made within and his willingness to continue in faith is an example of how even a difficult missionary experience can be a personal success.