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. Florida

    The best thing for Elizabeth would be to get out of the Morman church. They teach that every good morman marries a virgin. Where will this leave her? I know of a morman girl that got pregnant by another morman guy and then she gave the baby up for adoption but then NO ONE in the church would marry her after that. She is all alone (in her 50's now) and lost the only baby she ever had because her parents forced her to give the baby up because of the "church scandal".

    November 9, 2010 at 2:18 pm |
    • Sunshine

      That is a sad experience for your friend, but I know at least four LDS girls who got pregnant out of wedlock as well and none were ostracized. One gave hers up for adoption and the other three kept their babies. One married the father. The other three didn't. Only one is unmarried now (one of the ones who kept her baby) and all are good members, and so are their husbands. Mormons believe in repentance and forgiveness.

      November 9, 2010 at 2:35 pm |
    • CL

      It has never been taught in the church to marry a virgin. It is taught in the church to live a virtuous life, and when you make a mistake you repent of that mistake.

      November 10, 2010 at 11:43 am |
    • Skippy too

      "They teach that every good morman marries a virgin."

      I've been a member all my life and I've never heard something like that. Actually now that I'm not going that often but reading many comments here from anti-mormons makes me want to go back and keep up the good fight.

      Its unbelievable just how much misinformation and misleading statements is out here in cyberspace.

      November 25, 2010 at 3:21 pm |
  2. Sunshine

    @baruch–you do realize there are scientists who are also religious. Most of those accept that they don't know everything yet and eventually they will see how it all fits together–again using faith.

    @d from tx–umm...she doesn't have any kids.

    @mike–Religion didn't cause any of those things you mentioned. Those things were caused by selfish people with motives entirely separate from religion (although they did try to twist their religions to justify what they were doing in religious terms). Crusades–caused by selfish rulers trying to get more of their vassals lands and by popes trying to extend worldly power over kings (and by the way many historical popes were just political hacks).
    Inquisition–more about power and land. Easy to steal land when you accuse someone of heresy.
    Jihad and Israeli/Palestinian conflict–more political than religious. If you read history the Jews and Muslims got along relatively well before the British took over Palestine and other Arab countries and took over their lands. Giving Palestine to the (European) Jews was just another (and most notorious) way of exerting their "superiority" over the Arabic peoples. In the earliest sources the Arabs blame the Europeans more than they blame Jews–and this extended to Americans too. Only later did it get its religious veneer.
    As many Christians and even Muslims will tell you, persecuting other people is NOT what their religions teach. Only selfish people with non-religious motives tried to give their motives religious themes by twisting what their scriptures actually taught. All those terrible things done are more the cause of greed and selfishness rather than religion by itself. Without the religion they would have still found ways to carry out their conflicts.

    November 9, 2010 at 2:17 pm |
  3. donna

    Many of the Mormons who have gone on a mission talk of "giving up" two years of their lives to go and serve. I'm not a Mormon, but I should think that the young person is actually gaining much more than they are giving up. Hopefully, too, their spirit of service to others will last a lifetime.

    November 9, 2010 at 2:16 pm |
  4. Warren G

    I am also a returned missionary and I will say that I did love my mission. I served for 2 years in and around Arkansas. I loved every bit of it. A mission is totally voluntary and we are not forced to go. You start by preparing when you are younger and you are encouraged to go throughout your life. We are also required to pay to service and we are not paid for our service in money but in blessings. If we can not afford the mission sometimes other church members will help fund the mission. I will always remember my mission. I loved the part of the country that I was sent to and I do not regret it one bit.

    November 9, 2010 at 2:15 pm |
  5. Zane

    Adrianna: Telling others in Paris that their beliefs are wrong and that only your "One true church" has the keys to salvation is NOT a service to anyone but yourself and your church. Stop pretending that it is anything else!

    November 9, 2010 at 2:14 pm |
  6. w00diee

    Interesting. She goes from abduction to joining a religious cult. Poor kid.

    November 9, 2010 at 2:11 pm |
  7. Dagobert II

    I wonder if the irony of being a missionary for a church founded by a fellow who took fourteen year-old girls as plural wives escapes Elizabeth Smart? http://www.wivesofjosephsmith.org/

    November 9, 2010 at 2:08 pm |
    • NuclearPhysicist

      In the early 1800's, women often married at fourteen or fifteen and they usually chose older men who could support them and their children. During that period in our history, women couldn't vote or own land and the average life expectancy was much shorter, so women married younger. Regardless of what you may believe, polygamy is not an inherently evil practice (it was practiced by prophets in the Old Testament) and it was legal back then. It only became illegal when the Federal government use it as a tools to persecute Mormons. Because the Mormons believed in obeying the laws of the land, they chose to end polygamous marriages and comply with the law. Modern polygamists are not members of the Mormon Church, so don't go there. Most Mormons are honest, hard-working, law-abiding citizens of this country, so why do you want to continue persecuting them?

      November 9, 2010 at 2:43 pm |
    • Dagobert II

      Nuclear physicist, I hope you didn't get any degree in physics you have from the same LDS Sunday school manual that gave you your history education. If you'll take a look at the census records of the time, you'll find that fourteen was well below the average age at which women were first married. A perusal of the census records for the Utah Territory will also blow away your excuse that the practice of polygamy was necessary due to the large number of widowed women that needed support. Utah population:
      1850 total 11,380 male 6,046 female 5,334
      1860 total 40,273 male 20,255 female 20,018
      1870 total 86,786 male 44,121 female 42,665
      1880 total 143,963 male 74,509 female 68,454
      1890 total 210,779 male 111,975 female 98,804
      1900 total 276,749 male 141,687 female 135,062
      Furthermore, if you'll look at the list of Joseph Smith Jr.'s wives provided in my original post you'll notice that several of Joseph Smith Jr.'s wives were still married to living men when Joe took 'em as his polygamous wives. Joe knew this was illegal under the laws governing marriage in the state of Illinois and tried to keep the practice of polygamy secret by publicly denying it. When other Mormons who's wives Joe had hit on threatened to expose Joe's polygamy in a newspaper called the Nauvoo Expositor, Joe ordered the printing press destroyed.

      Brigham Young did not publicly reveal Joseph Smith's alleged revelation of polygamy as the 132d Doctrine & Covenant of the Mormon Church until he thought, mistakenly, that he had left the jurisdiction of the United States for what he hoped would be the theocratic Kingdom of Deseret. Unfortunately for Brigham, Mexico, which did/does not recognize polygamous marriages, lost control of Utah to the United States.

      After losing the legal battle for the practice of polygamy in the Supreme Court in the year 1878 (Reynolds V. United States), the Mormon Church didn't CLAIM to stop the practice of polygamy until 1890. That didn't stop the practice of polygamy in the Mormon Church though as the president of that church, Joseph F. Smith, was a practicing polygamist until his death in 1918. Even today there are at least two Mormon Apostles who hold Temple sealings to more than one living woman simultaneously. Dallin Oaks is one of these Apostles. The 132d Doctrine & Covenant is still in the Mormon Doctrine & Covenants and still REQUIRES the practice of the new and EVERLASTING covenant of plural marriage to achieve exaltation (deification).

      Today polygamy may be something the Mormon Church again denies practicing in public but history shows us that what the Mormon Church claims in public and what it does in secret are two very different things.

      November 9, 2010 at 6:59 pm |
    • Skippy too

      Dagobert II...."was well below the average age at which women were first married."

      Obviously you don't understand what 'average' means. The sample spread could've gone from 13 to 30 and still result in those same averages!

      November 25, 2010 at 3:16 pm |
  8. NuclearPhysicist

    I'm a scientist and the longer that I study the physical world, the more convinced I become that there is a supreme being that organized our world and gave us the freedom to choose. God supports free will, so he can hardly step in every time someone chooses a dark path. He can comfort and strengthen those that are wronged, if they choose to listen to the still small voice that is there for them. He can bring peace and happiness in a world of turmoil and hatred, but he will never force anyone to accept his plan for happiness. Although it is true that humans have used religion for personal gain and power over others, this fact does not invalidate who God is and what he stands for. Those who choose darkness, live in darkness and fear. Those who choose enlightenment, find happiness and contentment, even when things go very wrong. Choosing a belief in God has brought happiness to me and my family. I have freely chosen my path, not because God or any man has coerced me, but because this choice has yielded positive results. I fully respect the right of each individual to reject a belief in God and to choose their own path. My wish is simply to receive similar respect from those who choose not to believe in God. Unfortunately, I see a lack of kindness and respect by both believers and non-believers for those who disagree with them. Our differences don't have to divide us and make us enemies. When we treat others unkindly in our words and/or our actions, the blame for such incivility falls squarely back on us. Regardless of what we believe, we should be happy for Ms. Smart and the faith that has sustained her through her trials. For her, the results have undoubtedly been positive.

    November 9, 2010 at 2:02 pm |
  9. Drew

    I served in the Taiwan, Taichung mission seven years ago. For me, the decision to serve was entirely out of love: love for the Gospel, and love for my father.

    The Gospel of Jesus Christ is one of the most precious parts of my life. Jesus himself compared His truth to a a pearl of great price, a treasure for which, when discovered, a good man would sell all he owned in order to obtain it. Missionary work is not about demanding that others conform to your way of thinking; it is about offering a part of yourself, and one which has brought you great joy, to others.

    Secondly, my father served in Korea when he was 19. As a young child, he took me to visit Korea, and I saw his love for the people and the culture. I saw how much the people whom he had taught loved him, and I wanted to feel that way about God's children, too.

    I count myself immensely blessed to have been able to serve. My life, my education, and my career have all been affected by my time in Taiwan, but the most important part of serving was being able to feel a pure Christ-like love for the Taiwanese people that I could only have felt through service.

    November 9, 2010 at 2:00 pm |
  10. Tony G

    What the poor kid went through, and now she is being brain-washed with this religion.

    November 9, 2010 at 2:00 pm |
  11. Alex Wilson

    That was a pretty good description of what it was like on my mission to Argentina, 2 years that I really enjoyed. i developed a great love for the people as most missionaries do serving the people of the communities they are assigned to. One this the author missed, we referenced and taught from the bible (mostly New Testament – the teachings of Jesus Christ) more than any other book each day. I learned French in my high school in Canada but was sent to serve in Argentina....always wondered about the inspiration that directed me there.....was a great experience. I didn't miss telephones, television, or food from home, but I did miss my girlfriend! We were married 3 years after my return when I was half way thru my first University degree (the fluency in Spanish helped here as well).

    November 9, 2010 at 2:00 pm |
  12. Virginia Collins

    @ first I thought this article was talking about LSD book not LDS book I'm bored with it now 🙁 @ least she is part of a nice cult now!

    November 9, 2010 at 1:59 pm |
  13. Google Mountain Meadows And See Morman Cult

    Enough said

    November 9, 2010 at 1:58 pm |
  14. David

    I laud Elizabeth for her resilience and recovery regardless of the method. She is a strong person and I wish her the best.

    Aside from that: Instead of religion (belief/faith) and your own personal "salvation", how about tackling something tangible – like perpetual survival of our species. It doesn't require anything supernatural and dictates its own morals – don't overpopulate, don't pollute, don't destroy the environment that sustains us, get off our planet and populate the universe so "all our eggs aren't in one basket", etc – no deity needed.

    November 9, 2010 at 1:52 pm |
  15. Virginia Collins

    At first I thought the LDS book said LSD book, now I'm totally bored with this article 🙁 At least she is in a nicer cult now.

    November 9, 2010 at 1:51 pm |
  16. Skippy

    Does anyone other than me see the irony here? One of the reasons Ms. Smart's captor was able to control her for so long is because from the time she was born, she was told never to question authority, particularly male authority – be a good girl, and do what you're told. When she was finally found, it wasn't in some dungeoun somewhere, but walking down the street in her own town! She had no free will to escape. I believe the LDS church indoctrinates its followers with this type of mentality. She's still being controlled in her mission: "you can't do this, you can only do this if we allow it." Any church that feels the need to control its congregants to this extent and not to allow them the exercise of free will is not a legitimate religion, but a cult.

    November 9, 2010 at 1:50 pm |
    • Skippy too

      Your statement here is misleading. Although Miss Smart had a very sheltered upbringing up to then (aged 14) it had more to do with the upper middle class neighborhood and her family environment than the church telling her 'do this and don't do that'. The church invites people to live a certain way, freely and of their own free choice. No one is forced to do one thing or another. The church you describe here isn't what I see the once or twice a month when I actually go.

      November 25, 2010 at 3:10 pm |
  17. Jon

    Having been on a mission for the LDS church myself...I commend the author for writing the most fair article on Mormons I've ever seen on CNN. Very refreshing. Thank you.

    Learn more about mormons at Mormon.org.

    November 9, 2010 at 1:48 pm |
  18. They can sing...however...

    Silly Mormons – they're such kooks that it's not much of a stretch for whack jobs like Brian Mitchell to break off and start doing their thing. In other words, that nut didn't fall far from the tree. He had good background training to set him up to go to the next level.

    Compare that whacko outfit of a religion to something like the Methodists, for example. How often do you hear of some goofy cult figure or some extremist group branching off from the Methodists and making headlines with their shenanigans?

    I saw the excellent PBS special on these whackjobs, and was left shaking my head in disbelief. They are seriously demented. The US Government just hated 'em, and financially forced them out of their plural marriage scam, or they'd *still* be practicing and endorsing that stupidity.

    The more they stay wadded up in Utah, the better. I wouldn't live around those nuts in that state for any amount of money. That being said, I have great sympathy for E. Smart and her family and what they endured, and would have no problem pulling the lynch pin on Mitchell tomorrow.

    November 9, 2010 at 1:45 pm |
    • Jon

      I think your post is funny. Judging a group by looking at the whackos who break off from a group isn't a good standard to judge by. Violent Jihadists have come out of Minnesota and Connecticut for goodness sake...does that make all Americans bad?

      For more on silly mormons go to http://mormon.org/.

      November 9, 2010 at 3:47 pm |
  19. John

    Why don't they send any Mormans on a mission to learn about Mountain Meadows. Google Mountain Meadows and learn the crazy cult history of the Mormans. Best of luck to Miss Smart. She only deserves the best. Hope she can recover. I do believe she had an angel watching her, but it wasn't Maroni.

    November 9, 2010 at 1:43 pm |
  20. Bluecarpet

    I have a lot of trouble with the use of the word "serve" when it comes to talking about these missions. Perhaps the word should be "self-serve"? I can understand that those on a mission want to convert others "for their own good". However, I think they could serve better by helping someone without a home build a house, or someone who doesn't have enough food grow some.

    November 9, 2010 at 1:43 pm |
    • Andy

      That kind of service happens as well. LDS Humanitarian Services are often some of the first on the scene of disasters. At the local level, funds, food, clothing and other service are regularly provided to neighbors in need.

      November 9, 2010 at 3:40 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.