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. Lucy

    The definiton of a cult is that its members are isolated from the general culture and not allowed access to any information but what their leaders give them. These missionaries are not allowed to know anything about the rest of the world, but they are out pounding the pavements to instruct people as to what they are supposed to believe. Robots recruiting. Elisabeth was clearly already dead inside when she was abducted. She was in high school- not a child, and yet she compliantly let herself be led around for almost a year, taken out in public and not complaining. Her younger sister waited for 2 hours to tell her parents that her sister had been kidnapped. Why? Because the psychopath told her to. Mormons are, indeed, the blind leading the blind.

    November 9, 2010 at 11:13 am |
    • Wut

      She was in middle school, not high school. You show your lack of knowledge of cases like this. What about the boy who was abducted and lived with a man for years? What about the woman in CA who was raised from 11 to 28 by her abductor? The survival response dictates how you act in these situations, your brain shuts down and you continue to exist in whatever state you can to survive.

      November 9, 2010 at 11:24 am |
  2. Raul

    I love LDS folks. They're sincere, honest, hardworking and family-oriented. But wooo-hooo, their beliefs in a Jesus that appeared in the Americas, that native americans are descendants from the lost tribes of Israel (scientifically proven false), the golden tablets, Mr. Joseph Smith's visions of lunacy, blacks not being made full members until the 70's...on and on and on.

    November 9, 2010 at 11:13 am |
    • Wut

      At least we didn't conduct an inquisition, or rule nations politcally, or attempt to keep the bible from the masses by keeping it untranslated and in the hands of only the clergy.

      November 9, 2010 at 11:17 am |
    • EventHorizon

      "that native americans are descendants from the lost tribes of Israel (scientifically proven false)."


      To quote the author of that page, "There is DNA evidence that supports both sides of the controversy, and the genetic evidence is far from conclusive either way." Also, the church has no official position on where the events of the Book of Mormon took place.

      November 10, 2010 at 9:03 pm |
    • John Pack Lambert

      We do not know what the DNA of the lost tribes of Israel was. Some have argued that the people of Mongolia are also descended from the lost tribes, which would explain their close connection with the Native Americans. However a close reading of the Book of Mormon requires various unaccounted for people's whose ancestry is not mentioned. Thus the "Lamanaites" who remain at the end of the account are of indeterminate genetic ancestry but with Lehi and his fellow travelers out of Palestine in 600 BC only a small part of their ancestry. What other people existed outside of the area where the Lamanites lived or came to the Americas between AD 400 and AD 1450 we do not know. There is however linguistic evidence that suggests the ancestors of the Navajo and other Athapascan speaking peoples first came to the Americas in the general time frame of AD 1000.

      November 13, 2010 at 3:03 am |
  3. Jay

    Wow, you'd think she'd had enough of teh crazy after what that deluded POS did to her.

    November 9, 2010 at 11:11 am |
  4. Dan

    Mark, well said. The Quest of "understanding" Faith is a bit of a catch 22, if not an all out oxymoron. Rational analysis will not match the task, it's altogether a different arena. You can reflect on the outcomes of faith and see tangible evidence of God's hand at work, but only if you are open and willing to see. Not blindly swallowing everything, but genuine openness to see. You can't see the wind, but you feel it's effect (OK, Jesus said that one), same idea. Tho I don't align with Elizabeth's personal faith, it's apparent that much of her coping with this tragedy has been through her own faith. God Bless her and bring healing to her and her family!

    November 9, 2010 at 11:09 am |
  5. Kyle

    This is one of the best articles I've seen about LDS missions. It is very detailed and factual.

    My only problem is the phrase "rite of passage" which has appeared in 2 separate articles on CNN in just one week. It gives the idea that one must go on a mission in order to be considered a complete member of the Church.

    In fact, there are many who do not choose to serve a mission. And even though family and friends are often disappointed, no opportunities are denied them for their decisions. My Mission President chose not to serve a mission when he was 19, and he is a well-respected leader in our Church.

    November 9, 2010 at 11:09 am |
    • Wut

      I did not go on a mission and I am a member in good standing, with all the opportunities of someone who did go on a mission. In fact, the issue rarely comes up.

      November 9, 2010 at 11:16 am |
    • Danny

      Being a “returned missionary” myself, I can tell you that going on a mission is in fact a “rite of passage”. The pressure put on young men to go on a mission is immense. And those that do not go are looked on like they have committed some sin that prohibits them from going, especially since they “raised the bar” on who can go on a mission. This was not always the case, and in the 50’s and 60’s and before there was not this pressure. And while you might not know it, when a name is submitted by the Stake Pres to to called as a bishop, there is a box to mark if the person served a “full time mission”. It does matter, and is a rite of passage just like being baptized at 8 is.

      November 9, 2010 at 11:54 am |
    • Kyle


      I can respect the perspective that you have. I have two points to make in answering you.

      1) Being a "returned missionary" can be important in some leadership positions, particularly in foreign countries where the Church is young. Having returned missionaries there is important, because they have seen how the Church functions, and they have experience in following guidelines. In America and other well-established areas, it's not as much of a factor. Still, it may be considered, as are many other things.

      2) You seem to believe, as many critics of the Church do, that leadership positions are more important than other positions in the Church. This is not true. If it feels that way, that's the fault of culture, not Church teachings. Personally, I believe the most important Church calling is something along the lines of Home/Visiting Teacher or Primary Teacher. Leaders are simply there to maintain order (something which missionaries receive extensive training and experience in).

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

      Danny – my Bishop did not serve a mission.

      November 9, 2010 at 5:11 pm |
    • John Pack Lambert

      I think President Hinckley in presenting the campaign to raise the bar specifically said that missions should not be view as rites of passage. When I was baptized (at age 8) my bishop was a man who had grown up in the Church but not served a mission. My last stake president had not served a mission, but he joined the Church in Vietnam and got married before leaving the army. I had a professor at BYU who had not served a mission and he was a member of a high council.

      I think we should also remember that the brethren have emphasized that people should only serve missions if they have the physical, mental and emotional capacity to do so.

      November 13, 2010 at 2:56 am |
  6. Helen

    I truly don't care what anyone believes; if it gets you through the night and you don't force me to believe it, then good for you. Nothing in this story about Elizabeth Smart is forcing me to believe in Mormonism. If Mormonism gives her comfort, then I am glad for her that she has it.

    I think the problem I see here over and over is the double meaning of the word Faith. Faith is not necessarily God-Centered. It's not another word for Organized Religion. However, it's often used interchangeably by people on both sides of the debate. If you are anti-religion, then so be it. If you are pro-religion, then so be it.

    Frankly, Mormonism is no more goofy to me than Christianity. It's crazy to believe that Joseph Smith translated golden plates, but it's not crazy to believe that a virgin produced the son of God, that Noah captained an ark in a worldwide flood, that Lot's wife turned to salt, that Moab was killed by God because he wouldn't impregnate his dead brother's wife? Those plates don't seem any more far-fetched to me, than God's last-minute replacement when Abraham was sacrificing his only son.

    For those who say that faith should – or can – be based on tangible things: That is the very antonym of faith. It is an experience, or a feeling. And to bemoan those who find comfort in the broad term "faith" is as zealous and misguided as the very people you are purporting to hate.

    November 9, 2010 at 11:09 am |
    • Rethink

      So well said that any comment seems presumptuous.

      November 9, 2010 at 1:29 pm |
  7. Religion is poison

    This poor girl keeps getting the shaft. Going from one cult to another. Just because the mormon cult has many followers it doesn't mean it's legitimate. The foul stench of christianity has ruined people's lives for the last two thousand years. It's time to end this nonsense.

    November 9, 2010 at 11:08 am |
    • Don

      The scary thing is, you actually believe the nonsense you are spewing. And how do you propose that Christianity be ended? Freedom of conscience or belief should never be infringed.

      November 9, 2010 at 5:05 pm |
  8. d from tx

    OK I understand the need for missions I really do. But really? – the best thing for this girl that was kept isolated for years and kept from family, society , life in genera, etc and so on- was to take her and isolate her again. What??? I understand that she may need to stay away from the media– I get that- But she was just reunited with her family and now she is having to spend 18 months away from them with little to no contact. What about her children? how the heck do they adjust to this without their mother? This is beyond my comprehension. I'm just sayin

    November 9, 2010 at 11:07 am |
    • Wut

      Uh – Wow. She was abducted for 9 months. She returned at 15 and completed high school and some college. I am sure this time was loaded with counseling and recovery. She is 23 now – She has been back for years. Second, she has no children. Third, it is hard for people from other states to understand just how well known she is here. I am sure she is constantly approached by well wishers and people who mean well, and I am sure it is maddening. Going to France to not only dedicate herself to a cause but to be away from a place where everyone knows your name must be a relief.

      November 9, 2010 at 11:14 am |
    • Nately

      Trust me - it's not isolation. Your with a companion 24/7... some sort of isolation would be nice occasionally.

      November 10, 2010 at 7:09 pm |
  9. Jesus

    Mormons are not Christians

    November 9, 2010 at 11:06 am |
    • Wut

      We believe in Christ. What is your definition of Christian?

      November 9, 2010 at 11:10 am |
    • toxictown

      Jesus, you don't (didn't) exist so I guess it doesn't matter.

      November 9, 2010 at 11:35 am |
    • Terry

      Mormons are "Non Traditional Christians" – and proud of it!

      November 10, 2010 at 6:10 pm |
  10. nweames

    One point the article failed to note was that not only is service voluntary, they pay for the trip themselves. It is a sacrifice they choose for themselves.

    Regardless of the reason, you have to hand it to any 19, 20, 21 year old that chooses to leave their life behind to serve what they feel is a higher power whether you believe in it or not. How many young adults can see anything but themselves?

    November 9, 2010 at 11:06 am |
    • Little Kiwi

      And how many Mormons cannot see OTHERS, and only THEMSELVES?

      She's not going out in the world to learn about OTHERS, she's going out in the world to tell others about HERSELF, as a MORMON.

      If the LDS truly cared about Others, they would not have been the primary force behind Prop 8 – which was started by Mormons, funded almost entirely by Mormons, and organized by Mormons.
      Why? Because of their selfishness about their own faith, with no care in the world at how their actions are going to negatively affect the lives of others.
      You want to see the dirty secret of the LDS? Check out the suicide rates of young males in Utah...


      November 9, 2010 at 12:20 pm |
    • Frogist

      @little kiwi: Thanks for making that point about Prop 8. The LDS position on that is a reflection of the kind of ignorance that could be dismissed by openly acknowledging the value and importance of another way of life. And this could be achieved by immersion into other cultures without the limitations put on them by the church.

      November 9, 2010 at 5:23 pm |
  11. Reality

    Elizabeth Smart was subjected to horrors and terrors that no one can imagine. Let us hope the evil of Mitchell and Barzee is met with punishments fitting their crimes. Slow cast-ration by fire ants followed by staking them out in the desert to be slowly consumed by vultures sounds about right.

    November 9, 2010 at 11:05 am |
  12. Stephen Hawking Knows More Than You Do

    By bad things, do you mean priests who molest children? Or do you mean suicide bombers who shout Allah before exploding themselves in crowded areas?

    November 9, 2010 at 11:05 am |

    What a beautiful young lady. I admire her courage, although I'm not a Mormon seeing her living her faith to its fullest is just wonderful and considering what she has experienced is even more admirable!
    Hermann Tambeau, Montreal Canada

    November 9, 2010 at 11:05 am |
  14. Marc

    I absolutely cannot understand this mission thing....hello people,wake up. Completely ridiculous. They can call their parents twice a year...!!! Stupid,stupid. This is a sect, plain ansd simple.

    November 9, 2010 at 11:04 am |
    • Parker

      Sect: a body of persons adhering to a particular religious faith; a religious denomination. So... yeah, you're right, it is a sect. What's your point?

      November 9, 2010 at 11:11 am |
    • Marc

      Sorry, I meant cult.

      November 9, 2010 at 11:22 am |
    • r1228

      Missionaries also share weekly e-mails and letters with family and friends.
      If you are truly wondering, mormon.org has all the information on missionaries.

      November 9, 2010 at 1:15 pm |
    • Rethink

      As a missionary, I didn't care that I could only call twice a year. My parents didn't care, either. I appreciated the chance to be truly away from my parents. It made everything I did that much more meaningful. Plus, it was much easier for my family and me to appreciate how much I was changing.

      Back in the day, I wrote one letter a week. Nowadays, missionaries can send and receive emails once a week. A heartfelt written message can mean a lot more than an inane phone call.

      November 9, 2010 at 1:21 pm |
    • kylo277

      Dude...quite trying to understand things you no nothing about. the main reason for the limited phone calls is to facilitate spirituality and mission focus. the kind of spirituality that can only be attained when one leaves the cares of the world behind (facebook, espn, girlfriends/boyfriends, etc.) These missionaries are still in constant weekly contact with their families via letters and email.

      November 9, 2010 at 4:14 pm |
  15. Susie

    What the article described as "typical" is actually far from reality. I've known many missionaries in many areas. They are invited many, many times into homes of LDS members for dinners where I've seen them watch tv and read newspapers. They aren't always with their companion–although they're supposed to be. As an LDS church member for 58 years I can tell you many stories of missionaries that do not fit the ideal of the article.

    November 9, 2010 at 11:04 am |
    • Rethink

      Missionaries may all dress the same, but they are very, very different from one another, including in their degree of commitment. And there will always be people around who will facilitate any behavior from any missionary. When you are free to do whatever you want, it makes your commitment to doing the right thing that much more deliberate and, therefore, that much more meaningful.

      November 9, 2010 at 1:15 pm |
  16. Reality

    Elizabeth Smart was subjected to horrors and terrors that one can imagine. Let us hope the evil of Mitchell and Barzee is met with punishments fitting their crimes. Slow cast-ration by fire ants followed by staking them out in the desert to be slowly consumed by vultures sounds about right.

    November 9, 2010 at 11:04 am |
  17. Tom

    I served a mission for the LDS church in Colombia. I was not raised in the LDS church and was not indoctrinated with faith. I wanted to serve others and found teachings in the Gospel of Jesus Christ that were meaningful and important to me. The article does not state that missionaries spend a good portion of their time doing community service. I helped build homes, plant gardens, teach basic health and sanitation skills. Next time you watch the report of some disaster on CNN you may see missionaries working to help rebuild the community or render aid. It was a great way to spend two years of my life and learn how the rest of the world lives and survives.

    November 9, 2010 at 11:03 am |
  18. J


    November 9, 2010 at 11:03 am |
  19. Luis

    This poor girl. Her freedom was taken away by kidnappers and now she voluntarily gives up her freedom. I hope that some day this girl can really discover herself and enjoy life.

    November 9, 2010 at 11:02 am |
  20. James

    It's so sad that she was abducted by a religious cult with no grasp of reality only to now belong to another religious cult with no grasp on reality. Very very sad for this poor girl. At least the Mormons won't abuse her...they seem to be nice people.

    November 9, 2010 at 11:02 am |
    • uboughtalie

      Those nice mormons are only nice if you play their game.

      November 9, 2010 at 11:14 am |
    • toxictown

      She's screwed.

      November 9, 2010 at 11:34 am |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24
About this blog

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.