During my sojourn in the Franco-Belgian Mission in the 1960s, I read Henri Pirenne’s A History of Europe. Pirenne’s description of England’s conversion to Christianity greatly impressed me:
The conversion of England (596-655 AD) was a masterpiece of tact, reason and method. After long preparation for their task, St. Augustine of Canterbury and his companions went to work . . . They arrived in England only after they had studied its language, customs and religion. There were careful not to offend the prejudices of the English: they did not try to obrain premature results, and they even renounced their ambition to achieve martyrdom. They won men’s confidence before they won their souls: and so they won them completely. Sixty years later the Anglo-Saxons were not only Christians, but were already on the point of furnishing the Church with missionaries worthy of those who had converted them.”
Another interesting reference to a different type of missionary work is provided by Apostle John A. Widtsoe in conference talk in 1952:
. . . our people (Mormons) came here (Utah) and for the first time in the history of civilization demonstrated that a successful manner of community living might be built with an irrigation ditch. In this State, from which we have spread over the West and are spreading over the world, has come the birth of modern irrigation. Most countries which lie in part under low rainfall have sent agents or representatives here to find out what we did and how we did it, and whether they can do it also. We have a worldwide reputation in reclaiming desert lands by the use of water.”
So just as the Mormon church had sent missionaries all over the world to find converts to their religion, they were then poised to send engineers, with the zeal of missionaries, to preach the gospel of scientific irrigation. Widtsoe was the first and most famous of these, but by no means the last.
There appears to be an interesting training center (SIFAT) in Alabama that deals with low-tech solutions to help people in developing countries deal with poverty. I would like to see Mormon missionaries get similar training before leaving on their third-world missions. This would be a fusion of the ideas of St. Augustine and Apostle Widtsoe.
If that isn’t an option, then it would be nice to see young Mormons have a choice between a traditional mission and a humanitarian mission, with each given equal ecclesiastical status.