Inside the UK’s Mormon missionary boot camp

  • Published11 hours ago
Rebekah Cooper, a young Mormon missionary
Image caption,Rebekah Cooper

By Harvey Day

BBC News

Every year, thousands of young Mormons go on missions to try to recruit others into the religion. The BBC was given access to their UK boot camp, where they learn how to teach Mormon beliefs and use social media to reach potential converts.

When 19-year-old Rebekah Cooper started her mission, she had to give up her first name, stop making phone calls to her friends and surrender any time to be on her own, other than to use the toilet or shower.

Known only as Sister Cooper during her religious mission, she also began a strictly-planned daily schedule – of prayer, study, exercise, volunteering in the community and seeking out potential converts – starting at 06:30 every morning and ending with a nightly curfew.

Along with general Mormon rules based on religious scriptures like a ban on premarital sex and drinking tea and coffee, missionaries aren’t allowed to stay out late or watch TV or movies. Typical Gen Z pastimes like gaming and TikTok are also forbidden.

Rebekah is one of tens of thousands of young Mormons around the world who volunteer to take part in missions every year, with the goal of recruiting others to join the religious group.

Most are aged under 25 and live away from home for up to two years – and the biggest training centre in Europe for these young missionaries is located in Chorley, Lancashire. TV cameras were allowed into the training centre for a BBC documentary The Mormons Are Coming.

Officially known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), the Church believes in Jesus but is separate from other Christian groups. It has more than 16 million members and has the largest full-time missionary force in the world.

Awareness of these young missionaries has grown in recent years thanks to the Broadway and West End musical – The Book of Mormon. Some missionaries even try to find converts by speaking to theatre-goers outside of venues putting on the production.

Mormon temple in Chorley - a large white building with a thin, tall spire surrounded by well-kept grounds
Image caption,The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temple and training centre in Chorley, Lancashire

Rebekah says the strict life of a missionary is “a completely different lifestyle” to that of an everyday Mormon. “Even though I’d grown up in the church, it was still a very big lifestyle change for me.”

President Ostler, who oversees the missionaries at the training centre in Chorley, adds: “Missionary life is very different from a normal young adult’s life – and they’re up for that.”

‘Sometimes you feel like an influencer’

Rebekah says being brought up in the LDS Church was, at times, “tough” – and she felt “very different to my peers” when she was young.

But her religion also helped her through a period of anxiety and depression, after one of her classmates took his own life. “It kind of set off a series of events where I realised not only did I have clinical depression [but I’d] had it all my life.”

For about a year, Rebekah – from Tring, Hertfordshire – went through different types of treatment and says she struggled with her faith. She remembers spending one day crying and praying, until she eventually got a feeling that she should begin taking medication – something she had resisted to that moment.

After that, “everything just got better and I was a lot more stable,” she says. “It sounds a bit weird but there were a lot of little spiritual nudges to help me out.”

It was this experience that convinced her to go on a mission.

The Mormons Are Coming

Follow three young Mormon missionaries through the first few months of training and work in the field – which can make or break them.

Watch on Tuesday 28 February, 21:00 GMT on BBC Two – and on BBC iPlayer.

BBC iPlayer

Friends of Rebekah’s had been sent to exciting international locations for their missions – and Lancashire wouldn’t have been her first choice. When she found out she wasn’t going overseas, she hid her phone away and refused to look at it. “I was a little bitter for a few days,” she says.

Rebekah and her fellow young missionaries spent two weeks at England’s Missionary Training Centre in the grounds of the large Mormon temple in Chorley. It’s where she learned how to recruit new converts using a book called Preach My Gospel, which sets out the basics of the Church’s beliefs.

Rebekah and fellow missionaries were also taught how to keep to a tight schedule for their work – using an app where they planned every minute of their days.

Instagram Reels from young missionaries. Left to right, a man and a woman singing and playing a small guitar, two men dancing in front of a church, a woman kneeling and praying
Image caption,Missionaries are taught to create Instagram Reel videos to find potential converts

The Chorley boot camp also teaches missionaries how to use social media to find people for conversion by creating targeted Instagram Reel videos and Facebook posts. And they’re expected to send at least 50 social media messages per day to potential converts, based on who has engaged or interacted with their posts.

“It was a bit weird,” Rebekah says. “You had to be very public about your life and you were trying to get interactions from people. Sometimes you do kind of feel like an influencer.”

Posting so many social media posts did have some downsides for Rebekah, including being mocked online. She remembers feeling “upset” and “lonely” after someone shared one of her posts with the caption: “The psychos are at it again.”

“It just made me so sad,” she says. “Little things like that make it really tough.”

During missions, Internet use is closely monitored and is strictly limited to only missionary work. “Once you’re on your mission, your phone is not a source of entertainment, it’s your job,” Rebekah says.

At the Chorley training centre, the missionaries are assigned with their first companion who they’ll later live and spend all their time with. Over the course of a mission, they’ll be assigned to other companions.

Rebekah was first assigned to live with two companions in a flat in Wrexham – which, she says, was so small the bedroom only had room for two bed frames with a third missionary sleeping on a mattress on the floor.

“It was very cramped. I think I did struggle to find my space, at first. It was hard to adjust to.”

Missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints outside the opening night of the Book of Mormon musical in Liverpool
Image caption,Missionaries outside the opening night of the Book of Mormon musical in Liverpool

Speaking to the public on the street or over the phone during the mission could also be difficult, Rebekah says. While most people find the missionaries to be “quite friendly”, she says some members of the public don’t like them, and end up arguing with them and calling them crazy.

Some people on the street also give out friends’ phone numbers as a prank, which can lead to the missionaries being shouted and sworn at when they call to make contact.

But Rebekah remembers being given one phone number, which she assumed would be a prank, for someone who turned out to be genuine – 19-year-old car mechanic Josh.

“We spoke about the Book of Mormon,” Rebekah says, “and from then on he just wanted to learn more.”

After five weeks, Josh was invited to be baptised into the Church.

Back to post-missionary life

The most difficult part of missionary life for Rebekah was not being able to speak to her friends back home. She also struggled to find things to do in her limited free time – at home, she’d spend a lot of time on her computer or playing on her Xbox.

There were positives to this, though, like not having to read the news for months. “I’m actually very grateful I had that time away from the world.”

And Rebekah says she picked up a lot of confidence from her mission. “I think you have to, because you’re just thrown into these situations to either sink or swim.”

Elder Peter Johnson wearing a grey suit and a name badge
Image caption,Elder Peter Johnson

Peter Johnson, president of the Church’s Manchester mission and responsible for Rebekah and her fellow missionaries, says the strict missionary standards “help them to be more productive”.

“Missionary life is one of discipline and commitment and focus,” he adds, “but those are the same attributes they’ll have to use throughout their lives, whether in a job or in school.”

Now she has returned to normal life, Rebekah is hoping to study psychology and child development at university.

And she’s still getting used to post-missionary habits, like being on her own again after spending so much time with a church companion.

“It’s hard not having someone around me constantly. I’d go out to the shops by myself and it would feel really wrong. That was a weird change to get used to again.”

Watch The Mormons Are Coming on Tuesday 28 February, 21:00 GMT on BBC Two and on BBC iPlayer.

BBC images courtesy: Peggy Pictures/Dan Harrison/Sky High Aerial


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