Why are the Mormons teaching English in Yangon?

One topic that I’ve wanted to touch on for a while now is the presence of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) in Burma. I would like to say up front that I am not an expert researcher on matters of LDS church governance nor practices. However, I think it’s an interesting topic that no one has touched upon yet. Everything I say should be treated as speculation.

I need to get something out of the way, first…

I am a Christian and a believing and practicing member of the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod. I am a monotheist and believe there was only ever one god and before Him there was none and there will be no others after Him (OT, Isaiah 43:10). The LDS religion teaches polytheism and that any man may become a God (Doctrine and Covenants, Ch. 132, also take a look at official LDS marriage manuals. Hit Ctrl+F and search for “exaltation.”) I affirm only the Old Testament and New Testament scriptures as “God-breathed” and do not advise anyone to join the LDS church. I have had many conversations with LDS missionaries and returned-missionaries and they are wonderful people to talk to. I have nothing against them as fellow human beings. But, I also see them as a threat to believers in the one true Christian faith. Therefore, I must strongly advise against learning about their religion unless you have a strong foundation of the Bible. A lot of their doctrine even messed with my head after reading so much about it.

After some quick DuckDuckGo’ing, I was able to piece together a history of the LDS’ presence in Burma better than I knew before. The page is very well documented and, provided that no one shuts it down after reading this post, it can be accessed here.

A basic summary is that the LDS church gained some movement in the 70s and 80s, which is a bold confession to make, as foreign missionaries were officially removed from the country in the mid-1960s. According to this webpage, “The Church has had a presence in Burma for a couple decades and a branch has operated in Yangon but only senior missionary couples have served in the country on humanitarian assignment.” The “humanitarian assignment” the blogspot post refers to is probably work done by the LDS-sponsored Latter-Day Saints Charities (LDSC). It appears that LDSC is not registered as a company, since it cannot be found in the DICA company registrar. That doesn’t mean it isn’t registered as something else, though. Anyway, the first Elders (LDS term for male missionaries) were sent to Burma under its new government in 2014. They were, at the time, under the governance of The Thailand Bangkok Mission and still are. Burma now has its own dedicated branch, which is usually called a “ward” in the U.S.

I need to first go into some LDS terminology, as it’s different from your standard Christianese. An “investigator” refers to someone who is being proselytized. Or, to put it in nicer Christian terms “someone who is being witnessed to.” One of the articles above talked about there being “member-referred and self-referred investigators.” The former being a potential-convert who was brought by existing members for instruction. The latter (lol) being someone who expressed their own interest in learning about the church.

So, they’re there and they’re gaining interest among the people in Yangon. How is that possible? They’re teaching English. Yup. For FREE.

The Facebook page to look to is LDSC Free English Class. It used to just be called LDS Free English Class [Yangon(?)], but I suppose it’s changed. I noticed that a few of my Buddhist friends had attended there before, as well.

So, what’s my point?

I know you all may be thinking, “yeah, that’s all well and good. What makes them different from the ISKON groups in Northern Burma or the Jehovah’s Witnesses (Watchtower Bible and Tract Society) in all throughout the country? Or different from any horrible Christian group that is trying to proselytize these Buddhist people and destroy their traditional way of life?! BOO! DOWN WITH ORGANIZED (WESTERN) RELIGION!

I’ll tell you why. My point is that I think the main reason LDS Elders come in to teach English is not just a trick to get investigators in the door. It’s also because Mormons have a historical reason for favoring English: It’s the language their prophet Joseph Smith used to deliver the message of the Book of Mormon.

Joseph who?

For those who don’t know the background, I’ll try to be more respectful than South Park. To be fair to the LDS, I will use the official LDS narrative and not one from Mormon splinter groups.

Joseph Smith spoke of a vision that he had in the woods when he went out to pray to God. He saw two personages [sic]: Elohim (Mormon god) and (Mormon) Jesus. Joseph asked which denomination on earth was the right to join. Elohim said “none of them.”

Three years later (on September 21, 1823), an Angel called “Moroni” (that’s not Italian, pronounce it like how the whitest of white Americans would say it — More-OHN-eye) appeared in Joseph’s bedroom at night. His message? God had a work [sic] for Joseph to do. Joseph was to go to the Hill Cumorah and collect a set of golden plates on which contained “the fulness [sic] of the everlasting Gospel.” Joseph was to use two “seer stones” found with the plates to miraculously translate them into English. He was then commanded never to show the plates to anyone, lest he be destroyed.

However, Joseph wasn’t allowed by Moroni to actually get the plates for another four years. Finally, Moroni let him have at it and Joseph dug them up. Later, he gets Oliver Cowdery to work as a scribe. Joseph orally translated the plates and Oliver transcribed what Joseph said. The official belief, then, is that the golden plates were then miraculously taken away from the earth, so the last record of Elohim’s revelation remained only in Smith’s English translation.

The English is the closest they have

So, Smith’s English translation is the closest thing any Mormon group has to what (allegedly) was on the golden plates. Any seminarian in the Christian faith is encouraged to learn Greek and Hebrew (and a little Aramaic) to read the Bible in its original languages (yes, parts of Daniel, Ezra, and other books were written in Aramaic.) At the same token, Mormons want to read the BoM in its original translated language: English. While I disavow Facebook stalking, in the LDS missionary groups, you can find a lot of non-native English speakers reading passages of the BoM on their Facebook vlogs and such.

For American Mormons (not just LDS-ers), English is also the language of the land which once held the great battle between the Nephites and Lamanites. It’s the land where Joseph Smith found the golden plates. It’s the land where the “priesthood” was restored on the earth as Smith and Cowdery were visited by another Angel and received its blessing.

As I was reading a windy PhD dissertation on the Mormon colonies in Mexico, the author described how members of the colony kept American flags with them as tokens of pride. They didn’t intermarry with the locals at the time and they preferred to speak English on their colonies. Although the Mormon colonials, for various reasons, left the Rockies for Mexico, their American identity stayed with them.

Therefore, teaching English is not only a way to get into Yangon and to familiarize youth with the Elders and teachings of the church. It’s a way to share their shared identity as people who hold the same priesthood as Joseph Smith and who read the Book of Mormon in (a format mostly close to) Smith’s writing.

Further note

Although it was not avalible when I first looked several years ago, it appears the LDS has finished their translation of the Book of Mormon in Burmese. It can be read online HERE, but that doesn’t mean you should.

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