So David Axelrod once again insists that Mitt Romney’s Mormonism is definitely off limits. Whew! That means we won’t have to suffer through tedious Washington Post articles that try to make a 150-year-old massacre a campaign issue, or listen to Obama’s biggest SuperPAC donor’s claim that Mitt spent two years “trying to brow-beat Frenchmen into joining his cult.”
As one who spent two years in the UK brow-beating Scotsmen to join the same cult, I can honestly say that Mormon missionaries are more often the brow-beaten than the brow-beaters. I shall never forget that dreary morning in Livingston, Scotland, when a three-year-old urchin kicked me in the shins repeatedly and told me to “get a @&$ing job.” Believe me, it’s not as cute as it sounds.
The fact is that our main brow-beating technique was to knock on a door, announce ourselves as representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and smile wanly as the door slammed shut in our face.
In order to avoid this scenario, we spent several months conducting “a survey about religious issues.” It was all very scientific, and it very often got us in the door, only to be kicked out when we hamhandedly segued from opinion polling to proselytizing.
Unfortunately, it was also kind of dishonest.
Many of us would raise that issue in group meetings, only to be told that there was nothing wrong with it, until the Area Presidency got wind of this ploy and told us to cut it out because, yes, it was dishonest.
I wasn’t especially sad to see this particular technique abandoned, because getting access to some of these homes wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Publicly subsidized “council houses” in some of the poorer areas of Scotland were home to some of the most rancid stenches humanity has ever produced, some of which could actually inflict lasting physical damage on the human nostril. Particularly noteworthy was what was later dubbed the “Wall of Stink Incident” in Thurso, Scotland in the autumn of 1988, when a door opened and unleashed an almost tangible barrier of fetid vapors devoid of breathable oxygen particles, instead consisting primarily of gaseous remnants of barbecued dog hair, vinegar, carrion, unwashed gym socks from 1954, and disembodied armpits, all marinated in a vat of used diapers and sour milk. Even thinking about it two decades later causes my nose to start bleeding anew.
Once, when we were conducting our deceptive little questionnaire, nobody answered the door at first. We were driving from farmhouse to farmhouse, so we had gotten in the car to leave, only to be chased down by the homeowner who asked to get into the vehicle in order to complete our survey. When we noticed a swarm of ants climbing from his hand up into his shirt sleeves, we quickly informed him that the Law of Tithing would require him to pay 10% of all of his money to the Mormons. And thus it was that the Scottish Farmer and his Assembly of Ants was warded off from our back seat.
Of course, if the ants had gotten in, we could have taken care of them with a quick game of Spider Yo-Yo, which was a favorite pastime on rainy days inside of Glaswegian tenements, where hordes of big, gnarly arachnids infest the untended hallways. If you take your umbrella and poke any one of the zillions of webs up in the hallway corners, one of the spiders will crawl on to the metal tip, and you can fling the spider downward, watching the creepy thing cast a line to save itself. The spider then crawls back up, but you cast it down again, leading to hours and hours of by-yourself enjoyment. (Yes, sometimes Spider Yo-Yo sessions were interrupted by someone actually trying to talk to you, but not as often as you might think.)
There was also the game where your missionary companion assigned you a random word that you had to work into your door approach – words like “scuba” or “lunchmeat.” My first instinct was to just shout the secret word as the door was opening, but that violated the rules. You had to use it in an appropriate context; make it fit into a natural discussion. “Well, I realize you’re not interested, but just allow me to leave you with one of our pamphlets – oh, wait, not that one, it’s got lunchmeat on it…”
Occasionally, in true brow-beating style, we would have a little bit of fun at the expense of some of our more hapless proselytizing targets. During my mission, Mormon scholar Truman Madsen’s recorded lectures about the life of Joseph Smith were very popular listening material during mealtimes, and missionaries loved to mock Madsen’s rather Shatnerian speech delivery. According to Madsen, Joseph Smith, on one occasion, told someone how much they looked like Adam and Eve’s son, Seth.
“You look more like SETH… thananymanI’veeverseen!”
In moments of frustration and desperation, I’ve told at least a dozen clueless Scotsmen the same thing, in the same style. Madsen quoted Joseph Smith taunting some rough men by saying, “if you do not leave us alone, we will send both you… and your men… to HELL!” That was probably very powerful when Joseph was facing down an angry mob and defending religious liberty. It was less so when Elder Wilks said the same thing to an Inverness McDonalds clerk who was being pokey about bringing him his Quarter Pounder with Cheese.
I sat next to Truman Madsen at a family banquet in honor of my grandmother’s 90th birthday, just three days after returning home from my mission. I told him all about how missionaries all over Scotland – and probably all over the world – were using his words in vain. He was a good sport about it. And why shouldn’t he be? He looks more like Seth than any man I’ve ever seen.
In my defense, I think there was a point to all this when I started writing it.