Elizabeth Smart's other journey
November 8th, 2010
08:05 PM ET

Elizabeth Smart's other journey

By Jessica Ravitz, CNN

In a courtroom in Utah this week, Elizabeth Smart revisited the darkest  days of her life's journey. But her testimony came during a short break from a spiritual journey - one that has shielded her from reminders of her abduction, the nine-month ordeal and the attention that's followed her.

For more than a year, Smart, who recently turned 23, has been in the midst of her LDS Church mission, a rite of passage hallowed by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Serving in Paris, France, she is among the 52,000 Mormon missionaries - most of them young adults; the others retired couples - who are knocking on doors and speaking 107 different languages in 180 countries, according to Lyman Kirkland, a church spokesman.

Those overseeing Smart’s mission didn’t return a call to CNN to discuss her missionary work. But if her time in the field is typical, here’s a glimpse into how she’s been living.

She’s been cut off from television, barred from seeing movies and prohibited from following the news. The only music she hears is church-approved. She wakes at 6:30 a.m. everyday to study the gospel by herself and with another young woman missionary known as her companion.

Barring the one day a week when she and her companion can do laundry, run errands, write letters home and, time permitting, go sightseeing, Smart’s days are spent with her Book of Mormon in hand, reaching out to strangers and teaching those who will listen.

Sharing the LDS Church doctrine, and being of service to people they meet along the way, is a cornerstone of Mormonism. By teaching the gospel and baptizing others, the homegrown U.S. religion has grown to about 14 million members worldwide since it was founded 1830, Kirkland says.

Joseph Smith Jr. established the Christian church after translating the Book of Mormon from golden plates that he said the angel Moroni revealed to him in New York State. In its first year, 16 missionaries were called to serve the fledgling faith, church records show.

From an early age, Mormon children are taught to sing “I Hope They Call Me on a Mission.” To be called on a mission is considered the greatest of honors.

Starting at 19, young men (referred to as elders) may be called to serve two-year missions. Young women (sisters), starting at 21, serve for 18 months. And wherever they go, they travel in same-sex pairs.

A missionary does not choose where he or she will serve.

The would-be missionary completes an application, which is then sent with other materials to LDS Church headquarters by that missionary’s stake president. A stake is sort of like a diocese; it’s the church body that oversees a group of LDS Church congregations, referred to as wards.

At LDS Church headquarters, members of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles pray for divine inspiration before making mission assignments. In April of this year, Ronald Rasband, a general authority in the church, spoke about once witnessing the process when he addressed Mormons at a semiannual conference.

On one large computer screen, photographs of would-be missionaries appeared, he said. Another screen showed areas of the world where the LDS Church has missions. Before doing anything, the apostle knelt in prayer. He would envision where the missionary might go and study medical records, comments from the stake presidents and bishops, and any other materials submitted.

“Finally, as he was prompted by the Spirit, he would assign the missionary to his or her field of labor,” Rasband said. “This general method is typical each week as Apostles of the Lord assign scores of missionaries to serve throughout the world.”

The young adult finds out where he or she is going in a “mission call letter.” The call could take a missionary to places as various as Bolivia, Uganda or Kentucky.

Smart received her mission call letter, which sent her to Paris, France, in September 2009, according to the church-owned newspaper Deseret News.

Standing before family and friends, as most soon-to-be missionaries do, Smart opened her call letter, her father Ed Smart told the newspaper.

“She starts screaming and we’re wondering, ‘Where is it?’ And then she starts reading it,” the paper reported him saying. “We’re thrilled. It couldn’t be better. … It’s away from all this. Some of the celebrity type issues won’t be there. We couldn’t be happier for her.”

The newspaper also reported that during her captivity Smart was forced to write in a diary each night, and  at the bottom of each page she would write messages in French that her captors couldn't read.

Last fall's competency hearing for the man accused of abducting Smart, Brian David Mitchell, was scheduled to allow her testimony in court before she began her mission. She returned temporarily from her mission to testify further in Mitchell's federal trial on charges of  kidnapping and taking a minor across state lines for sex.

Before leaving for their destinations, missionaries report to one of the church’s missionary training centers. There they engage in spiritual study and, depending on where they’ll be traveling, intensive language classes for up to eight weeks.

New arrivals, dressed to proselytize in suits or modest skirts and always wearing name badges, are partnered up with companions who are further along in their missions. Under the guidance of mission presidents, stationed in the field, these young Latter-day Saints set out to serve.

The mission presidents and their wives act as surrogate parents to the missionaries, and local LDS Church families look out for them, too, often hosting them for meals.

Smart, like other missionaries, has in many respects been cut off from the wider world. A typical missionary is only allowed two calls home a year - on Mother’s Day and Christmas Day. In extenuating circumstances, perhaps like Smart's, exceptions are made. The church could not verify how much phone contact she’s had with her family.

But the odds are she has not followed the ins-and-outs leading up to Mitchell’s trial. Her commitment is elsewhere.


- CNN Writer/Producer

Filed under: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints • Courts • France • Mormonism • Utah

soundoff (1,111 Responses)
  1. hebdo27

    She's hawt!!!!

    November 9, 2010 at 12:44 pm |
  2. Yay or Nay

    Would. Just saying...

    November 9, 2010 at 12:43 pm |
  3. Sandy

    If they also took Gudernoobs (made by WOOHoo Foods) they would convince a lot more people!

    November 9, 2010 at 12:41 pm |
  4. jj

    I'm not sure which is creepier – being dragged up into the hills by an insane couple, or the description of her life in the church.
    Here's a thought – her abductor probably was convinced of his mission, and acted on faith. How different is that from biblical teachings, and acting on faith?

    November 9, 2010 at 12:41 pm |
  5. Bliss2

    Faith isn't stupid folks, and you don't have to be religious to have it. There are many miracles that take faith that we now take for granted. i.e. Flight, radio, telephones, internet, space travel, planting seeds, etc You believe them because you have seen them, but what of those who have never seen them, or who thought they could not be done? Does that mean they couldn't exist? No, it means that we should stop thinking that we know everything and believe that there is always more to learn. Faith in God is hard to understand, especially if your life is hard (and whose isn't?) but I tell you that if you pay the price to know God, and that means humbling yourself to the point that you think that there may actually be someone to pray to, you will find him. Not in an earth trembling way, but through a quiet manifestation of the Holy Spirit, the same way you feel when you know you have learned a truth.

    November 9, 2010 at 12:39 pm |
  6. Former atheist

    As a former atheist, I can testify that there is a God and that He saved me from a life of blind faithlessness and spiritual ignorance. When God spoke to me on a desperate night many years ago, I knew of His existence better than if He'd shown Himself to me. There is no such thing as blind faith. Faith is seeing God with your heart. Just because someone doesn't believe in God now doesn't mean he/she never will. There are only believers and future believers.

    November 9, 2010 at 12:39 pm |
  7. MinnesotaSu

    Elizabeth Smart is an incredible woman and her family and faith have had a hand in her inner strength. Her family has been so supportive. But I think she is an "old soul", blessed with incredible inner awareness and maturity. I don't believe in a god, but Ms. Smart obviously has a strong faith in her god. No one should begrudge her that. Any of you naysayers posting on this article should just lighten up and be thankful that this horrible kidnapping/abduction did not happen to you or anyone close to you. Wherever Ms. Smart's faith comes from is fine with me. That she still have such strong faith is wonderful and remarkable. More power to Ms. Smart!

    November 9, 2010 at 12:39 pm |
    • Kimbooly

      Minn- Thanks for your kind words. I too am grateful that this young gal seems to be so strong and unscathed.

      November 11, 2010 at 3:39 am |
  8. Living Behind the Zion Curtain

    I think mormons got it all wrong. JoJo wasn't visited by the angel Moroni. It was Moron-I (Moron the 1st)!

    November 9, 2010 at 12:38 pm |
  9. Paul in Boston

    Theologically, I don't believe in what the Mormons believe, but it is nice to see that whoever assigns the missionaries has a heart. It was good of them to give her Paris as assignment location, given her fluency in French. At age 14 she already endured experiences more traumatic than those of any missionary serving in a rough part of the world. Also, fyi, one time two Mormons came to my door doing their missionary work and I told them point blank that I was gay. To their credit they did not freak out or get nasty at all; they said some kind words about hoping I maintain a relationship with God, and they took their leave.

    November 9, 2010 at 12:37 pm |
  10. bojeebees

    This makes me sick. This girl leaves one horrible situation that was influenced by Mormon fundamentalists. Then she's asked by the church to spread more mental and spiritual poison. I urge, no I beg of you, if you're LDS/Mormom take some time to study the history behind your religion. You'll be surprised how quickly you'll discover that your dogma was fabricated by a con-man. But do not think yours is the only religion that suffers from early false inception. All religions are this way. The Mormon faith just happens to be young enough so that we have a full, true accounting of it's genesis.

    Educate yourself and escape from the lies you've been fed. You might just discover the beautiful"heavenly" life you're so anxious to find.

    November 9, 2010 at 12:36 pm |
  11. BrentAZ

    For the Atheists out there...why do you demonize and try to force your beliefs on believers? It seems you do not hold yourselves to the same standards you seem to hold Christians. You get angry when they even talk to you about God, yet you attack them for their beliefs ad naseum. Doesn't seem to make sense.

    I wish you knew Christ...it is not about forcing people to come to religion, it is about sharing the truth with them. I hope one day you come to realize that you do have a purpose in life beyond what is in front of you. Good Christians share the word with love, not malice.

    November 9, 2010 at 12:36 pm |
  12. brian d

    Dont get me wrong i think its absolutly terrible what happen to Amy but those mormons are just like a cult i worked at the hill comorah pagant and they deff are some strange ppl

    November 9, 2010 at 12:36 pm |
  13. ybs

    One can have faith or be spiritual. But only sheep tie their faith/spirituality to 'their' religions.

    Why did Romney (from MA) got 90% of the 2008 Utah primary votes?

    Think folks! There is nothing spiritual, humble, or innocuous about religions. They are the subjugation of others, regardless of whether they (others) are spiritual or not.

    You can have faith or be spiritual but you must be a fakking idiot (sheep) not to see the evilness of religions.


    November 9, 2010 at 12:36 pm |
    • LDSareChristians

      So how is it that Utah, 60% LDS voted 90% for Romney? 30% were NOT LDS!

      November 23, 2010 at 1:04 am |
  14. MarkinCA

    Dear Jessica,

    Thank you for writing such a great piece of journalism. Too often I read stories, and end up with more questions than answers. As a Non-Mormon, I don't know a whole lot about Mormon MIssions, and the very detailed description, including historical background, answers any and all questions I might have had reading this story.



    November 9, 2010 at 12:35 pm |
  15. James

    I am a Mormon and I think CNN had the right intentions but missed the boat on explaining missions. Missions are completely voluntary and no member of the Church will be disciplined or disgraced if they choose not to go on a mission. While young men are expected to go on a mission, females are encouraged to get an education and/or find a spouse, but if desired, can go on a mission as well. It is also not a "rite of passage", whatever that means. It is an honor to be called on a mission to share our beliefs, but it is certainly not the greatest honor as CNN described. The highest honor in being a Mormon is following the teachings of Christ and being able to raise a good family with a good and faithful spouse who also respects and honors God. And we believe family relationships are eternal and will continue on past the grave. Hats off to Miss Smart though as she has overcome so much and chooses to share with the world the source of true happiness: Jesus Christ and his gospel.

    November 9, 2010 at 12:34 pm |
  16. shamgar50

    This religion was founded by a huckster, who claimed he translated the "book of mormon" from gold plates that only he could read.
    "In 1823, Smith said a heavenly being or angel named "Moroni," who he claimed was the son of Mormon, a man that died about 400 A.D., appeared to Smith. Maroni, told Smith that there hidden written records on "golden plates" of a lost people who once had a great civilization in America. These plates were conveniently buried just outside the town where Smith lived. But they were written in an unknown language Smith called "Reformed Egyptian." Maroni instructed Smith to use two special peep stones to look through, which would enable him to translate the plates. Smith said he uncovered the golden plates, translated them with these stones and the end result is now known as the "Book of Mormon." And Maroni is now commemorated as the golden figure perched atop Mormon Temples."

    Now there's a religion grounded in reality......................NOT!

    Smith was fairly illiterate, and had to dictate the translation to a person behind a curtain. It seems that if anyone else tried to read the plates, they would be struck dead. "How Convenient"!

    November 9, 2010 at 12:33 pm |
    • NKC1990

      Dude, don't be so cynical. You don't really understand what happened, so don't bash till you do... and when you do know it, you won't have anything to bash.

      December 2, 2010 at 7:20 pm |
  17. JohnQuest

    River a loving parent that could have prevented this would have or do you disagree?

    November 9, 2010 at 12:33 pm |
  18. shopgirl

    I wish Elizabeth Smart all the best in her new journey, and I'm happy for her that she has been able to spend time serving a mission in France, away from all of this.

    I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and chose to serve a mission after I graduated from college. It was a wonderful experience, and it changed me for the better. My perspective was altered, and I came to see and understand the hand of God in my life in meaningful ways.

    As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, missionary work is important to us. Not to 'recruit' or 'brainwash' others, but to share with others the blessings we have experienced in our own lives as a result of finding Jesus Christ. While we love sharing our beliefs and giving others the opportunity to learn, we respect all believers and non-believers alike. While many do not agree with our doctrine, I think that most people will agree that Mormons are generally good people with strong family values.

    November 9, 2010 at 12:32 pm |
  19. jm4919

    Understand that the LDS church is NOT a Christian church. They should (correctly) be considered a cult. The doctrine that is taught in the LDS church is very counter to the teachings of the Bible. The LDS church, however, condier themselves the "real Christians" and that everyone else that does not agree is condemed. The teachings of this "church" are nothing short of bizarre.

    November 9, 2010 at 12:32 pm |
    • John

      so much ignornace, judgement and bigotry in this post. i take it you're the REAAL Christian? go spend week with an LDS family or friend and then tell me whose life is more devoted to Christ. sounding a whole lot like the Saducess and Pharisees pal. that last phrase will make more sense when you crack open your Bible.

      November 9, 2010 at 12:40 pm |
    • chad

      What a ridiculous comment. THE CHURCH IS CALLED, "THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST OF LATTER-DAY SAINTS"!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! As Will Ferrell once said, "I FEEL LIKE I'M TAKING CRAZY PILLS!!!!"

      I think it is so funny that people think that Mormons aren't christians! WHAT IS A CHRISTIAN?!?!?!? Someone who follows Jesus Christ!


      November 9, 2010 at 2:57 pm |
  20. Al

    Oh please, tell me where those golden plates went to?

    November 9, 2010 at 12:31 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.