Hollie J. Pollan and Dr. John Livingstone, Church History
Reactivation and retention of members and converts plays an enormous role in the duties of LDS missionaries today. Modern prophets have stressed the need to retain new members through a calling, a friend, and hearing the good word of God. Dozens of hours a week are allotted for reactivation of less active members in missions around the world. It is an essential part of member and missionary work for the Church.
My research is directed to answer questions regarding the importance of reactivation and retention in the early founding days of the Church. Was there an emphasis placed on the importance of visiting those that had gone astray, or in keeping members active during their first tender months and years in a new church?
I hypothesized that both reactivation and retention were important for the Church in the beginning, but were met with some difficulty given the constant traveling state of the elders. From the information I have gathered, my hypothesis seems to be correct. In almost all of the journals I have read, missionaries documented the state of the church in the area, commenting on the good or bad standing of members. This shows concern for the activation level of the various branches. The missionaries were always, with only one exception that I have found, very willing to take ample time to resolve concerns and rekindle the gospel fire for those that had lost it. For example, often a pair of missionaries would spend upwards an entire week in one branch solely working on strengthening the members and bringing back the lost sheep to the fold. One elder was even implanted semi-permanently as the leader of the branch for more fully reactivating and strengthening the members.
I found that the missionaries understood the importance of bringing back baptized members to the Church through their personal accounts of long hours of prayer, emotional duress, rejoicing, and work put into the lives of those they served. They were very much attached to the added duty of tending the membership of the Church in addition to baptizing and giving sermons.
I was also concerned with the effects of traveling elders on the stability of the church. First, the elders worked hard to set up a branch that could be autonomous and retain the members at the same time. In addition, many elders returned to the branches they had previously formed precisely for purposes of reactivation and retention. Missionaries understood that revisiting their areas greatly strengthened the members and the Church.
I also found that missionaries actively sought out “apostate” and less active members to reconvert them. Even the higher leadership levels of the Church were involved in seeking out weak areas and sending missionaries to those areas for the express purpose of strengthening and rebuilding the branches.
Of course the terms “reactivation” and “retention” had not yet been coined, even though the ideas still existed in terms of “fellowship” and “unity”. Joseph Smith talked briefly about retention encouraging the members to remember the importance of embracing those that had joined the Church and the duty of one member to the next in fellowship and love. Beyond this, according to my research, no further comments have been made about either subject. The prophet’s ideas on the subject are essential to the fulfillment of the requirement by the missionaries. This area requires additional research that will be very rewarding.
I have researched many missionary journals and primary sources such as the Millennial Star and other such newspapers and articles to find information. I found the personal journals of everyday missionaries to be the most helpful. It was very frustrating, however, trying to find information on the subject. I have read scores of journals with a minimal success rate. The information exists, it is just finding it in the web of experiences and daily tabs that make the research of this topic difficult. I was also very interested to know if Joseph Smith had preached anything relative to reactivation or retention. After reading his journals and various teachings, my search was fruitless. Lack of information has been the biggest frustration in writing this paper.
The most important aspect of the research is the application to our day and age. Missionary work continues to flourish and we must concentrate even more effort on reactivation and retention as it grows. From these early missionaries, we can learn the importance of dedication of time and effort, prayer, the presence of the spirit, and the will to help others come back. The early missionaries understood this concept was just as important as baptizing.
Due to the plethora of journals, research on this subject seems like it will never be completed. There is always more to read and understand about the lives of missionaries during the early stages of the church. Current research gives reactivation and retention the same weight then as it has now. They are ever essential to the growth and stability of the Church.