Mormon Missionary Mortality Crisis
While Mormons across the world have been excited by the surge in the number of missionaries serving, they have also been saddened by the unusually high number of recent missionary deaths. These events tell us a lot about missionaries' ability to rely on special protection from on high.
According to media reports, 12 missionaries have died over the past 12 months. The causes are many: car accidents while missionaries were riding bikes and driving in cars, missionaries being electrocuted by live wires, having a bad reaction to medication, health conditions, being hit by a stray bullet, and possibly suicide. The death of missionaries causes a deep sorrow in the hearts of all Mormons. Missionaries in many ways are a symbol of the church itself. For converts it most likely is the missionaries who taught or baptized them; for life long members it is a child or a sibling who has served a mission. The director of the church's missionary department has recently said "The death of a missionary is felt by every church member in a deep and personal way."
With the sorrow has come surprise that this could happen. Along with the deep care members have for the missionaries is a faith that the Lord protects them in their work. This faith comes from many sources. First is a story from the Book of Mormon where 2,000 young Nephite warriors, called the sons of Helman, were miraculously protected in battle due to their faith and righteousness. The parallels to missionaries are many. LDS missionaries have been referred to God's army and the parallel is even made in an LDS song "we are as the army of Helaman."
The second source for the belief comes from LDS scriptures in the Doctrine and Covenants. Here the Lord promises to fight the battles for the Saints (D&C 105:14) and the Lord promises that guardian angels will be given to missionaries to "bear them up" (D&C 84:88). Lastly, missionaries are the center of prayers throughout the church. Individuals, families, congregations, all pray for the protection of the missionaries. Aside perhaps from the youth of the church, there is no other group that is prayed for more often than the missionaries.
What do these deaths mean for Mormon beliefs about God's love and protection for missionaries? In terms of protection there are two important principles at play. The first can be summed up in a common quip: "the Lord does not bless idiots." This quote means that the God has given us agency or free will. In other words, God does not shield us from the consequences of our actions or the actions of others. This leads to accidents and tragedies. Some may be our own fault, some not. Some of the missionaries made poor decisions that lead to car accidents, some were the victims of poor decisions by others.
The surge of accidents can be attributed to many factors all related to the surge in missionaries. An increase in the number of missionaries also means an equal increase in accidents. Younger missionaries means a greater likelihood for careless decisions, and the huge influx of new missionaries, new mission presidents, and new missions can create atmospheres where accidents are more likely to happen as rules and standard operating procedures are being established.
One important observation with the 12 deaths is that not one was from targeted violence or hate crimes. Indeed this is the greatest fear of the church, that its missionaries will be the target of violence and hate crimes. While isolated incidents have happened in the past, no patterns have occurred. For the keen eye, this is the protection the Lord offers. Over the past five years, several events have happened that have most likely decreased the likelihood of violence towards missionaries:
The 2008 California prop 8 campaign was supported by the LDS church. Many are still puzzled by the level of the church's aggressive support, but it fit the church's goal of promoting family values. This resulted in a serious blow to the church's image. This was accompanied by some frightening security concerns for the church including protests at the LA temple and two powder filled packages mailed to two LDS temples. The protests did not turn violent, and the powder turned out to be harmless, but the events highlighted the severity of the moment. One advertisement in opposition of prop 8 used fake Mormon missionaries badgering a lesbian couple, destroying their marriage certificate. It is easy to imagine a scenario where opposition to the church's support of proposition 8 could be targeted at missionaries.
In the five years following the church has done a 180 in changing the tone of the debate, though has not changed its official stance on gay marriage. Many have highlighted the need to repair the church's image or the need to increase love in society rather than bitter hate but few have mentioned the role that this change has played in keeping the missionary force safe.
Another event that has increased the safety of the missionaries is Mitt Romney's electoral defeat this past year. Mitt Romney's victory would have had negative consequences for the church in Russia. Mitt Romney's overly aggressive foreign policy statements towards Vladimir Putin (whether justified or not) already had an impact on public opinion toward the church in Russia. Had he won the election, significant problems would have arisen. In Russia there are common beliefs that LDS missionaries are CIA agents. "Young Guard," a youth group associated with President Putin's political party, began protesting against the LDS church at about the same time the U.S. election was heating up. President Putin certainly would have been tempted to target the LDS church as a means of retaliation for Mitt Romney's harsh take. Russia's society might have gone right along, as it is notoriously intolerant towards gays and immigrants.
These two events have played significant roles in preventing LDS missionaries from becoming targets of violence. This protection will not shield missionaries from the consequences of their actions or the actions of others, but it is protection none the less. While all members of the LDS church mourn the deaths of missionaries, they can still take comfort in God's protection from death, and hope for His protection in eternal life.