You are here

Richard Lloyd Anderson and Worldwide Church Growth

TitleRichard Lloyd Anderson and Worldwide Church Growth
Publication TypeBook Chapter
Year of Publication2000
AuthorsCowan, Richard O.
EditorRicks, Stephen D., Donald W. Parry, and Andrew H. Hedges
Book TitleThe Disciple as Witness: Essays on Latter-day Saint History and Doctrine in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson
PublisherFoundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies
CityProvo, UT
KeywordsMissionary Work

Show Full Text

Richard Lloyd Anderson and Worldwide Church Growth

Richard O. Cowan

My first contact with the work of Richard Lloyd Anderson came when I had the privilege of serving a summer stake mission in Los Angeles as a high school youth. I was told about a remarkable new teaching outline that had been developed in the Northwestern States Mission and was encouraged to write for a copy. Presently I received in the mail a large envelope containing material in a black folder entitled “A Plan for Effective Missionary Work.” I was impressed with its persuasive use of scriptural passages to teach gospel concepts. Only in later years when I began studying recent Latter-day Saint history did I more fully appreciate the widespread impact of Anderson’s work.

Earlier Antecedents

During the church’s earlier decades, door-to-door “tracting” had been the primary method by which missionaries contacted people. The object was to leave a religious tract at every home, hoping for a possible discussion later if individuals had any questions from their reading. Often weeks would go by without any apparent results from the missionaries’ efforts. Not surprisingly, several twentieth-century mission presidents compiled materials to help missionaries be more effective in their work.

Still, no organized missionary lesson plans were available. Many missionaries filled this vacuum by building their discussions around existing series of tracts. One popular series, “Rays of Living Light” by Charles W. Penrose, “presented the first principles of the gospel [but] with little mention of Joseph Smith and the restoration.” Another series, Elder Brigham H. Roberts’s “Why Mormonism?” gave more emphasis to “the message of the restoration.”1

Another publication in 1937 was destined to have a long-lasting impact on Latter-day Saint missionary work. LeGrand Richards, a future presiding bishop and member of the Council of the Twelve, concluded his presidency of the Southern States Mission by leaving a copy of The Message of Mormonism with each missionary. This outline was prepared to assist the missionaries in their study and presentations of the gospel in a systematic and logical manner. In twenty-four weekly topics, a missionary could cover the restoration and basic doctrines of the gospel. Under each topic President Richards outlined key scriptures, listed tracts or other available reading matter, and suggested questions that should be answered in the discussion. The “major emphasis” was on teaching the gospel; “little mention was made of the need for the investigator to accept baptism at the hands of the elders.”2

During the next several years many other missions adopted this plan. Repeated requests for copies eventually led Elder Richards to enlarge his material and to publish it in book form under the title A Marvelous Work and a Wonder. This became one of the most popular Latter-day Saint doctrinal works of the twentieth century.

The “Anderson Plan”

Following the close of World War II, the church’s full-time missionary force soared from 477 in 1945 to 2,244 a year later. This meant that there were many new missionaries in the field who lacked experience and who could profit from some assistance and direction. To help meet this need, various mission presidents compiled guidelines and suggestions that were distributed among their own missionaries and often in adjoining missions. Without question, the most widely circulated postwar proselyting outline was that prepared by Richard L. Anderson.

Elder Anderson built on foundations others had laid. As a youth he was impressed by accounts of his father’s missionary experiences in Missouri at the time of World War I. The father and his missionary companion had challenged each other to memorize one hundred scriptures. After accomplishing this significant goal, Elder Lloyd Anderson had an opportunity to employ his newly acquired arsenal while preaching on a street corner. After the discourse a bystander remarked: “I never have heard a person quote so many scriptures—and less said.” Still, hearing this comment would kindle in young Richard a love for the scriptures.

Richard L. Anderson enlisted in the Navy during World War II. While stationed at Jacksonville, Florida, he enjoyed going out with the local missionaries. It was at this time that he met and was profoundly impressed by Reid E. Bankhead, an ensign who was also at the Jacksonville naval base. Bankhead gave a series of fireside lectures on topics commonly discussed by the missionaries. Anderson was impressed with Bankhead’s ability to select key conversion topics and to present the scriptures effectively. This experience reinforced young Anderson’s determination to hone his own skills in using the scriptures to teach the gospel. While in the service, Anderson visited with many other missionaries to see what they were doing successfully. As he gathered this added perspective, the major features of his own future method took shape.3

In the fall of 1946, one year after the war ended, young Elder Anderson arrived in the Northwestern States Mission. He was now determined to build on the teaching concepts he had worked out while in the military service.

Under this program, rather than merely handing out tracts at the door, the missionaries’ objective was to get inside the homes in order to present their message. “We would better understand our purpose in tracting if we termed it personal contacting,” Elder Anderson explained. “The Lord tells us to preach the gospel. Passing out literature is not effective tracting—the object is to get inside.”4

Another key feature gleaned from others’ experiences was emphasis on the Book of Mormon as a powerful teaching tool and key to conversion. Placing copies was a specific goal of the initial contact. “If the Book of Mormon is explained in a clear and distinct way,” Anderson affirmed, “any honest person should want to read it.”5 Fourteen doctrinal discussions, beginning with two on the Book of Mormon, were arranged in a logical sequence to bring conversion.

The plan emphasized the need to secure commitments as teaching progressed. The first major feature in each lesson was “Agreement to be reached.”6 “One topic should not be left until agreement is reached; it is pointless to ever hand out information without definite commitment on the part of the investigator.”7

The main body of each lesson was entitled “Material to discuss.”8 Emphasis was on a logical analysis of relevant scriptures. Open and direct questions allowed the investigator “to decide what each scripture meant, and then . . . to express his frank opinion after sufficient proof was presented.” Questions were designed to foster commitment and belief.9 “Arouse the prospect to active thinking and definite reaction on each point.”10 No dialogue was provided, but missionaries were to get the logical sequence of topics in mind and then present the material in their own words. They were urged to memorize scriptures. “Don’t let a day go by that you don’t memorize at least one passage.”11

A selection from the first discussion, on the Book of Mormon, illustrates the plan’s structure and flavor:

Gen. 49:1, 8—10. Jacob prophesies what will befall each tribe. Judah receives the blessing of kingship—he will be the political leader. The point of reading this passage is to make clear the difference in the blessings given these two most important tribes, Judah and Joseph. (I Ch. 5:2 will often help here.) Gen. 49:22, 23 v. 26. What does the word “progenitors” mean? Who are Joseph’s progenitors? They inherited the definite area known as Palestine. If Joseph’s blessing prevails above their blessing, will he inherit a land of greater scope and extent?12

Still, a key step was missing. During his first missionary assignment, at Bend, Oregon, Elder Anderson observed that though the people appeared to believe what was being taught, something more was needed “to get them out of their front rooms into church meetings.” Anderson wrote to his old friend, Reid Bankhead, who shared a baptismal challenge worked out by a missionary companion, Glen Pearson. Inserting this discussion brought dramatic results.13

Elder Anderson’s mission president, Joel Richards, had a background in the insurance business. He felt that his call to preside over the mission was divinely inspired, and he sensed an urgency to apply what he had learned in the business world. As he rode the train from Utah to mission headquarters in Portland, he pondered how missionary work could be structured to become more effective. Upon his arrival, he was excited to learn about what Elder Anderson and his companion were doing in Bend.

“Sister Richards and I feel that [this] Missionary Plan has come in direct answer to prayer,” the new president later wrote, “and that Elder Richard L. Anderson was inspired in its preparation. Since receiving our call to preside over the Northwestern States Mission, we were very much concerned as to how we could best help the missionaries in their study and preparation, and in presenting the Gospel in a logical and convincing manner so as to actually get results. We talked about it and prayed about it and just couldn’t get it off our minds. When we arrived in the mission field,” President Richards continued, “we saw Elder Anderson in action and achieving outstanding success, having baptized over thirty converts within a year. As we studied his method we were convinced that it was the answer to our prayer.”

President Richards assigned Elder Anderson to teach his methods to missionaries in Corvallis, one of the larger districts, to see if the results would be the same. After three months “the results were so startling and the missionaries so enthusiastic,” the “Anderson Plan,” as it was coming to be called, was introduced throughout the mission in mid-1948.14

As these improved methods were adopted throughout the mission, the results were apparent. While during the first half of 1948 the mission had baptized only 158, the number of converts during the second half of that year soared to 384. In comparison to only 48 baptisms during the first three months of 1948 there were 225 during the same period a year later.15 Within the mission the number of converts per missionary climbed from 1.87 in 1946 to 5.72 in 1949. In this latter year the Northwestern States Mission baptized 1,001 converts, thus becoming the first mission in modern times to exceed one thousand baptisms during a single year.16 President Richards also noted some other benefits: “In holding missionary conferences and reading the weekly reports and letters, it is most gratifying to see the change that has taken place in the morale of our missionaries. They are enthusiastic about their work because they are making progress and getting results. . . . ‘Nothing succeeds like success,'” he concluded, “and the missionaries, seeing the fruits of their labours, were eager to find more contacts and hold more cottage meetings in order that they might have more converts, and this all led to more hours tracting and spent in proselyting time.” President Richards gratefully acknowledged that “This rejuvenation and change in morale was felt throughout the entire mission, and a common expression among our missionaries was: ‘Oh, if we had only had this plan when we first came into the mission field, how much more we could have accomplished!'”17

The impact of Elder Anderson’s innovations was not limited to the Northwestern States Mission. As other missions heard about the success achieved through these improved methods, they requested copies of the plan. Although Elder Anderson’s materials were first published in 1949, by early 1951, “eleven thousand copies of this guide for missionary work have now been published, and requests for it have come from all over the world.”18

Statistics reflect the churchwide impact of the Anderson Plan. During the postwar years 1946 to 1950 the number of convert baptisms had grown from 2,600 to 9,000, but the number of missionaries had also been growing. Hence the annual number of converts per missionary remained relatively static, between 1.84 and 1.95—approximately the same level at which this figure had languished during the previous quarter of a century. By 1951 the Anderson Plan was being adopted by a growing number of missions worldwide. In that year, even though the Korean War almost halted growth in the number of missionaries, total converts shot up to over 13,500 and the number of converts per missionary rose to 2.71.

Subsequent Developments

In wake of the Anderson Plan’s widespread success, the church decided to publish a plan of its own to be used in all missions. Gordon B. Hinckley, executive secretary of the General Missionary Committee, interviewed the individuals who had helped develop the various postwar proselyting programs.19 Richard L. Anderson was impressed with the openness of his interview and with the intelligent questions Hinckley asked.20 The first of these plans published officially by the church appeared in 1952. A Systematic Program for Teaching the Gospel built on the foundations laid by the Anderson Plan but condensed the missionaries’ presentation into only seven discussions. The plan’s preface explained:

Experience has shown that it is not always necessary to take people through an extended series of lessons before they become converted to the Church. Agreement may be gained on . . . fundamental doctrines in a relatively short time through a logical presentation of gospel principles, fortified by scripture, together with reading, convincing testimony, and sincere prayer.21

There was less emphasis on logic and proofs and more on the force of the missionaries’ testimony.

The lessons were written in dialogue form, but the missionaries were encouraged to give them from their hearts and to use their own words as they gained experience. Another innovation was the recommendation that the missionaries sit with the family around a table and draw simple diagrams on a sheet of paper.

In 1961 church leaders convened the first worldwide seminar for mission presidents. Under the leadership of the General Authorities the mission presidents pooled their experience in refining proselyting methods. The result was a new missionary plan, A Uniform System for Teaching Investigators. Using President David O. McKay’s slogan of “Every Member a Missionary,” stress was placed on the Saints’ role in finding and fellowshipping potential converts. Church members were admonished to lead exemplary lives that would win the respect of others and open the way for gospel discussions. For some time the referral system, in which the Saints gave names of interested friends to the missionaries, had proved successful. Now the Saints were encouraged to invite nonmembers into their homes for “group meetings” to hear the missionaries’ message. This method proved even more successful and had at least two important advantages: Missionaries could use their time much more efficiently, concentrating on teaching rather than finding contacts. Then, the same families who first introduced nonmembers to the missionaries could later help these friends make the transition from one way of life to another and often from one circle of friends to another. This plan’s six lessons continued to build on principles developed in the Anderson Plan—emphasis on the scriptures, thoughtful questions, and obtaining commitments.

A new missionary outline that appeared in 1973 reflected the growing emphasis on the family. The Uniform System for Teaching Families suggested that missionaries might introduce the gospel by working with nonmember parents in presenting family home evenings. The remainder of the seven proselyting discussions presented the same basic principles that were emphasized in previous missionary plans. One significant innovation was citing scriptures from the Book of Mormon as well as from the Bible—representing a further development of the Anderson Plan’s emphasis on the Book of Mormon’s converting power.

In 1985 the church made further refinements in the teaching process. The Uniform System for Teaching the Gospel in its six discussions provided some dialogue, instructions to missionaries, and scriptural resources.

The church has experienced remarkable growth during the past half century. In 1947, the year after Richard L. Anderson entered the Northwestern States Mission, the church’s membership passed the one million mark. In 1997 the church passed the ten-million milestone. Most of this growth has come from convert baptisms resulting from missionary work. Elder Anderson was the first to insist that thousands of missionaries deserve the credit for this remarkable progress. Paraphrasing the words of Paul (1 Corinthians 3:6), Richard humbly acknowledged: “Others and I may have planted, many others watered, but certainly God gave the increase.”22 Nevertheless, at the beginning of this era of unprecedented worldwide expansion, the Anderson Plan laid important foundations on which subsequent missionary programs have built. These improved methods, in turn, have played a key role in enabling the latter-day kingdom of God to fulfill the destiny foreseen by the ancient prophet Daniel—to roll forth and fill the whole earth.


  1. Jay E. Jensen, “Proselyting Techniques of Mormon Missionaries” (master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 1974), 74.
  2. Ibid., 76.
  3. Richard L. Anderson interview by author, 26 February 1997.
  4. Richard L. Anderson, A Plan for Effective Missionary Work: Prepared and Used by Northwestern States Mission (Portland, Ore.: Northwestern States Mission, 1951), 3, emphasis in original in all quotations.
  5. Ibid.
  6. See, for example, ibid., 11.
  7. Ibid., 10.
  8. See, for example, ibid., 11.
  9. Jensen, “Proselyting Techniques,” 78—79.
  10. Anderson, Plan for Effective Missionary Work, 8.
  11. Ibid., 9.
  12. Ibid., 13.
  13. Anderson interview.
  14. Joel Richards, introduction to A Plan for Effective Missionary Work, comp. Richard L. Anderson (Kaysville, Utah: Inland, 1954), 5.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Compiled from Annual Mission Reports, ms., LDS Church Archives.
  17. Richards, “Introduction,” 5.
  18. Anderson, Plan for Effective Missionary Work, i.
  19. See Sheri L. Dew, Go Forward with Faith: The Biography of Gordon B. Hinckley (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1996), 144.
  20. Anderson interview.
  21. A Systematic Program for Teaching the Gospel (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1953), 6.
  22. Anderson interview.