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. brad

    Funny how people will go into paroxysm when Mormons know on their door or they see two words "Jesus Saves" on a bumper sticker. Then they'll go to the video store and rent some violent movie that poors blood all over the inside of their TV screen, or allows them to go into someone's bedroom on TV and watch two people in the act. And this doesn't bother them at all.

    November 9, 2010 at 12:13 pm |
    • Rethink

      Some people derive their dignity by searching for and adhering to good principles. Others derive their dignity by finding their own way and being entirely free from the influence of others. When these two people meet, the chances for either to lose that dignity is high. It is something that we, as Christians, should be particularly mindful of. We think we have lost when we have lost our dignity. The other side thinks we have lost when they think we have lost our dignity. In other words, we think we have lost when we have not adhered to our principles. The other side thinks we have lost when we subject ourselves to the influence of others. This is why religious and non-religious people have a hard time seeing eye to eye.

      November 9, 2010 at 2:31 pm |
  2. feather

    Lordy. It's hard to reconcile my personal convictions with my desire to defend the church I grew up in sometimes.

    I have...issues with some of the things the LDS church teaches. I've issues with some of the things the general authorities have said in the past (complaining that YOU'RE persecuted after pouring millions of dollars into legal persecution of the LGBTQ community? Seriously?) and I've issues with the mindsets of a lot of the members. The flipside of that, though, is that I've very, very little issue with the actual core beliefs - the stuff that comes straight from the books. I've read both the Bible (Numbers is some dry reading, lemme tell you) and the Book of Mormon multiple times, and they reconcile themselves fairly easily. That's far from my issue.

    I'll say this much, though: while by and large the missionaries I've known in my time are some of the most naive people I've ever met, I think the self-imposed isolation of an LDS mission is one of the best things Ms. Smart can do for herself right now. She pulled herself out of the media loop. She doesn't have to follow all the news articles about the people who did all those awful things to her. She's devoting all her time and energy to concentrating on something that has nothing to do with her past. She's in a country where the details of her case are probably not widely known, and all her nametag says is 'Sister Smart' (or whatever the French equivalent of 'Sister' is, I don't speak French). Regardless of my beliefs about the validity of the religion or the concept of faith in general, I think a year and a half breather from reality might not be a bad thing in this situation.

    (Oh, and to all the active LDS members who I know read and comment on this blog - I respect your faith in the church and your right to practice said faith as you see fit without judgment about who's a Christian and who isn't, since that isn't my call to make. HOWEVER, not a word you say can convince me the LDS church is even remotely fair to my particular demographic, so don't even try it.)

    November 9, 2010 at 12:12 pm |
    • Rethink

      I'm not sure that T belongs with L, G, and B. You may want to ask a T sometime if they feel the same way. As for Q, my favorite was Desmond Llewelyn.

      November 9, 2010 at 2:20 pm |
  3. karen

    Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Heb 11:1

    November 9, 2010 at 12:11 pm |
  4. Steve

    The level of intolerance in many of the comments by self-proclaimed free thinking, scientific minded, invective spewing people reveals most of what one needs to know to estimate their motives and inner disconsolation. Do you believe in reductionism, empiricism, determinism, yourself? What exactly do you think your opinions mean to Ms. Smart? Probably the same thing that awaits you after you leave this world.

    November 9, 2010 at 12:11 pm |
  5. agalag

    No faith? What makes you get up in the morning? What do you think when you see a beautiful sunset, flower, baby, etc.? What do you say when you've barely escaped harm? "Thank God". What is it that keeps most folks on the straight and narrow? What keeps you from killing your neighbor or from commiting a horrible crime? Fear of the law or the fires of hell? I've had faith all my life and consider myself lucky to have it. For those of you who have no faith–look deeper! I'd be willing to bet that somewhere deep inside you do indeed have some form of faith–you just don't call it faith...remember we all have to live with ourselves–our own consciences. Is a conscience not faith?

    November 9, 2010 at 12:10 pm |
  6. Proud to be Mormon

    People would be surprised at how many Mormons they are actually around and not even know it. You will most likely run across a Mormon when you are involved in an act of service to fellowmen. This is a great story! I guess it would be more acceptable to society if she had a kid and ended up molesting that child because of her traumatic past. Very few people have commented that it is amazing that she's been able to take control of her life after such events. Instead they open it up to "Mormon bashing." So sad, but is evidence that people are better critics than do-ers. I served a fantastic mission and never felt such great freedom in my life. No one can be freer than when serving their Heavenly Father sharing the gospel of Christ. I wish that could have double my mission time. It was the best 2 years of my personal life. Instead of bashing and being a "couch quarterback," do the research yourself and find out your answers by your own efforts rather than taking uneducated comments as facts. Find out why the young men and women of the LDS church consider a mission an honor. Only then will you understand why a mission is one of the truest acts of life one can experience and why Elizabeth decided to serve a mission.

    November 9, 2010 at 12:10 pm |
  7. Judy

    Wow....Ms. Smart goes from one Cult to another Cult...Mormonism is a cult. If anyone thinks that being cut off from your parents, traveling around for 2 years, being told what to do 24 hours a day is not abnormal and a process of indoctrination and brainwashing....then they are insane. What's the difference between being "kidnapped" by two crazy religious people who have control over you for 24 hours a day...and be controlled by Mormons 24 hours a day who have control over you for 24 hours a day? Nothing....All religions are a belief in magic, imposed through brainwashing, indoctrination, and peer pressure. I am so happy that Atheism is growing. People don't "choose" to be Atheists...Atheism is a "conclusion" one comes to when one gets enough information to finally figure out that these people are flat nuts.

    November 9, 2010 at 12:10 pm |
    • Lance

      Re: Judy
      Nothing to add-everyone should just read what Judy says since she is spot on!:)

      November 9, 2010 at 12:38 pm |
  8. MediaVirus

    Here's how science works: if you experience something like Elizabeth Smart experienced, first they want you to get hooked on multiple types of anti-depressants and then they want you to go to a psychologist and a psychiatrist for years so you can keep reliving these events. Science is a much scarier religion than Mormonism.

    The best remedy for anyone who experiences something horrible is to go serve others. Once you take the focus off of yourself, you realize that there are many people experiencing horrors every day that make your experiences look petty. In fact, it's people who've experienced these horrors first hand who are most able to empathize and connect with those who have also experienced them. That's why former gang members are always the best people to talk and rationalize with current gang members to try and get them out of the gang. It's called having "street cred"...and if you don't have it why should anyone listen to you?

    November 9, 2010 at 12:09 pm |
  9. Tanner

    I think Paul explained faith pretty well in 1 Cor. 2:14-

    "But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned."

    There are things that everyone believes in that they don't see. What about love? What about friendship? Sure, you can see the evidence of these things, but you can not see the thing itself. Why is believing in God so different?

    You can know he exists, but you can never know by seeking to understand by the knowledge of men any more than you can understand and experience love just by thinking about it or reading a book about it. Those who humbly seek for God will always find him and those who puff themselves up in the supposed wisdom of their own understanding will never learn more than they already think they know.

    November 9, 2010 at 12:09 pm |
    • Lance

      I believe love exists but I don't believe love can tell me anything about how the earth was created, how life got to be here or where I'm going when I die. Similarly I think that emotions that you happen to label the Spirit don't come from God-they come from your brain-but you have been taught so repatedly to label certain emotions under certain conditions 'the Spirit' that you never question it.

      November 9, 2010 at 12:56 pm |
  10. Ben

    I just want to say Elizabeth is in our prayers and a true example of courage and relience for all of us. God bless!

    November 9, 2010 at 12:09 pm |
  11. sandie

    sounds like she is being FORCED to believe –

    CULT of Mormonism

    November 9, 2010 at 12:08 pm |
  12. Rob the Mormon

    I enjoy learning about all religions and find a lot of truth in each one. I feel that the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints bring peace to me and help me make sense of the crazy world in which we live. I had enough faith to ask the hard questions of my faith as a young person and I had enough faith to question with boldness each of the teachings of my church and have found over time that my faith in many items has changed to a knowledge. As you test teachings (theories) through the crucible of life and find the teachings to prove true over time, faith is no longer needed. God lives and because of Jesus Christ we can return to him. We will all face God someday and account for our conduct in this life. We will find that we existed in God's family before we came to this earth and we will all go "home" again having gained much from this life and Elizabeth will be stronger from what she has experienced. I believe that we will benefit from our trials. Job's trials made him stronger. Jesus was greater than us all and therefore his trials were more difficult than ours. It speaks strongly of her character that she was given such strong trials and has overcome them. I have tremendous respect for Elizabeth.

    November 9, 2010 at 12:08 pm |
  13. Little Kiwi

    Wow. You know, it really puts things in perspective when you look at not only what a Mormon Mission entails, but their logic behind it, and *why* a Mormon must do this.

    And people wonder why this poor young woman went along with the brainwashing and abuse of her abductor... she's been conditioned this way.

    Cut off from media, cut off from music that the LDS don't approve of, cut off from diversity and learning about others, all to spread a very narrow-minded and controlled "belief" to others.

    What's sad is that Smart's captivity and brainwashing was not truly at the hands of the man that kidnapped her, it's from the religion her family brought her into.

    Very distressing.


    November 9, 2010 at 12:07 pm |
  14. BarryW

    i always am happy when people are quietly devoted to their God, whether through Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, or whatever. But missionary work is something else, because there is a great arrogance in thinking that your religion is better than everyone else's, and christian missionaries have destroyed world cultures for hundreds of years trying to foist their religion on others who already have one. Christianity is the worst, for they have misinterpreted Christ's words and made the world suffer for it.

    November 9, 2010 at 12:06 pm |
  15. If you can get kicked out

    If you can get "kicked out of a religion" it is a cult! Long live BYU and multiple wives!

    November 9, 2010 at 12:03 pm |
    • Rethink

      The concept of excommunication in Mormonism is not punitive. It might take a sentence or two to explain, so stick with me. At baptism, a person takes upon themself a sacred obligation (a "covenant") to take upon themself the name of Jesus Christ and always remember Him and keep His commandments. Violating covenants is a bad thing. In fact, it is better for a person who seriously violates covenants to be excused from those obligations. A person is not punitively kicked out of the Mormon church. They are relieved of their obligations willingly taken upon themself, via covenant, until such future time that the person can once again be able to re-enter that covenant. The Mormon concept of excommunication is not a pronouncement of damnation or condemnation. It is a necessary step forward and upward. It isn't punitive.

      November 9, 2010 at 2:13 pm |
    • John Pack Lambert

      By your definition the Roman Catholic Church is a cult.

      November 13, 2010 at 3:30 am |
  16. lj

    What a bunch of crap

    November 9, 2010 at 12:02 pm |
  17. JohnFranc

    Say what you will about Mormonism in particular and religion in general – it is clearly evident that this mission is a good thing for Elizabeth Smart as she attempts to recover from her ordeal and resume her life. I disagree with much of Mormon belief and practice, but it is meaningful and helpful to many.

    November 9, 2010 at 12:02 pm |
    • Little Kiwi

      except for the countless LGBT Mormons who commit suicide in Utah every year.
      it's the leading cause of death for young males in Utah.

      November 9, 2010 at 12:11 pm |
    • Rethink

      L, G, and B are completely different from T.

      November 9, 2010 at 2:06 pm |
  18. Dan


    Christian Faith is based on reasonable facts. http://www.equio.org"

    the most laughable thing i've read all day thank you paul.

    November 9, 2010 at 12:01 pm |
  19. korwynias

    Can I be like Joseph Smith and create my own religion cause I dont like the one presented to me? So I can make what I do and say justifiable?

    November 9, 2010 at 12:01 pm |
    • Mike

      Go for it. We'll know if it worked in a few hundred years, I guess.

      November 9, 2010 at 1:47 pm |
  20. HPNIII

    The real question is why do do so many women prefer a male doctor ?

    November 9, 2010 at 12:01 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.