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“Do You Believe In Lady Missionaries?”

By: Guest - June 05, 2014

Today’s post comes from Matthew McBride who is Web Content Manager with the Church History Department and author of A House for the Most High.

Nineteenth-century Latter-day Saints considered proselytizing missions to be the exclusive domain of male priesthood holders. Women participated in tract societies, shared their beliefs with family and friends, and occasionally accompanied their husbands on missions. But these activities were calculated to keep women in proximity to the domestic sphere and were typically viewed as supportive of and secondary to the full-time missionary thrust. This changed in 1898 when women began to be called to serve full-time proselytizing missions, including the first single sister missionaries in the Church’s history.

Unlike the largely feminist endeavor of Protestant woman missionaries who, through their missionizing, self-consciously laid claim to a sphere of action within their denominations, the call of Mormon women as missionaries began as a pragmatic response by Church leaders to a pressing need. The Church had a public relations problem. The charged issue of plural marriage fostered a widely-held perception of Mormon men as lascivious masters and of Mormon women as slaves of the polygamous system. Aggravated by the efforts of anti-Mormon pamphleteers, this perception was difficult to counter with a force of young male elders.
While plural marriage created a need for women as faith advocates in the missions, its decline in the wake of the Manifesto catalyzed a demographic shift conducive to a force of sister missionaries. Ben Bennion and Kathryn Daynes have demonstrated the correlation between the gradual cessation of plural marriage, the decline in marriage rates and the rise in the mean age at first marriage.[1] These trends created a burgeoning population segment unheard of in nineteenth-century Utah: twenty-something single Mormon women.
The First Presidency noted this growing pool of single young women with alarm. In an 1896 business meeting they discussed “the condition of a large number of young women who were anxious to become honorable wives and mothers in Israel, and would be willing to enter into plural marriage” were it not for “the laws forbidding polygamy.” According to the minutes of the meeting, “The evils existing were conceded, but no definate remedy to meet them was considered to be available at present.” [2]
Just weeks earlier, the First Presidency and the Twelve had discussed how “the need of missionaries everywhere was increasing and the work was reported to be languishing in some places for the lack of Elders.”[3] This succession of meetings is striking to consider in hindsight. Church leaders at that moment clearly did not yet envision a role for women in full-time mission service.

Genesis

Over the next 18 months, support gradually began to build for the idea of women as missionaries. Joseph F. Smith, for example, came to believe that the Church had been “stuck in a rut” in sending only male missionaries.[4] But it was Mormon women themselves who provided the main impetus for the change. Reports flowed in from local leaders and mission presidents of women who had helped potential converts overcome their misgivings that stemmed from misperceptions of the condition of Mormon women.

For example, in the fall of 1897, wealthy Utahn and YLMIA Board Member Elizabeth Claridge McCune traveled to England with her family. She and her daughter sang and held the Elders hats during street meetings, but Elizabeth had “an ardent desire to speak herself, feeling that as she was a woman she might attract more attention than the young men.” During the previous year, William Jarman was in England promoting his charmingly titled anti-Mormon book, Uncle Sam’s Abscess or Hell Upon Earth. Among his most scathing criticisms related to the treatment of Mormon women in Utah. Elaborating upon long-standing tropes of enslaved polygamous harems, Jarman gave the exasperated missionaries fits.

At the October London Conference, Joseph W. McMurrin surprised McCune by asking her to speak to a crowded hall of Latter-day Saints and non-Mormons about the conditions of women in Utah in hopes of countering Jarman’s accusations and others like them. McCune’s speech hit the mark. Her presence not only “allayed prejudice,” but helped McMurrin imagine a potential ambit for women in the mission. He invited McCune to speak at other conference meetings over the coming weeks and wrote the First Presidency asking that women be called as full-time missionaries. [5]

At about the same time, California Mission President Ephraim Nye wrote President Woodruff asking that his wife Hattie and the wives of three other elders in his mission be called and set apart to preach alongside their husbands. The First Presidency in an 11 March 1898 business meeting considered these two letters from mission leaders. President Woodruff and his counselors called President Nye’s wife Hattie and three other women to serve with their husbands in California and soon thereafter, to call two single women from Provo—Inez Knight and Jennie Brimhall—to serve in the British Mission. During 1898, 29 women (including at least 5 single women) were set apart and issued certificates as missionaries to serve in locations as diverse as Denver, Colorado and Apia, Samoa.

Mission presidencies were left to decide how to employ these “lady missionaries.” There was no policy, no precedent. Some, like McMurrin had a clear vision of how sisters could contribute. When Knight and Brimhall arrived in England, McMurrin billed them as “real live Mormon women” from Utah. Brimhall wrote of her experience, “Many have told me that they did not think women were allowed to come away from Utah. Many have spoken of the cruel way in which women are treated, so you see what a lot of prejudice must be broken down before you can reach them.” [6]

Married Sisters

Ephraim Nye’s suggestion that the wives of missionaries be called was built upon nearly 50 years of experience. Women had long accompanied their husbands on missions to tend the home. But this was clearly a departure from past practice. Empowered by their certificates, these missionary wives knew they were expected to preach the gospel.

Consider this scene, written by Susa Young Gates for her novel “Little Missionary,” in which she depicts the life of a woman in the early 1890s who had accompanied her husband on a mission to Hawaii. “Why, darling,” the mother tells her child, “every time you sweep the floor, if you do it well, you are performing missionary labor. . . . The missionaries here must eat and drink, and wear clothes; and when you make the house clean for Papa it is just as creditable so far as the duty is concerned as to go out and preach like Papa does.” [7]

Contrast this with an 1899 letter from Sister Ida Luetta Roberts serving in Samoa. “What joy I take in going out tracting from house to house with my husband, and to associate with the native women!” She would “often go out and visit with [local female members] according to Samoan custom. “As you enter their houses, they get down a roll of mats for you to sit on.” They would then proceed to eat and have gospel conversations. [8]

The experience of married woman missionaries varied greatly depending on their age and circumstances. Sister Roberts and her husband Edgar Thomas Roberts were newlyweds when they were called in 1898 to serve together in Samoa. She gave birth to two children while on her mission to Samoa, both of whom died before the age of two. Hattie Nye was 51 years old and brought her youngest daughter Hattie Elizabeth, age 9 with her. Others called to California were young marrieds and only one had a child at the time of her call.  Blanche Woodruff Daynes, daughter of Wilford Woodruff served a mission in England with her husband and young son Donald in 1899 and 1900. Her letters underscore the challenges of serving with an infant: “The other day I made an attempt at tracting; took Donald in his cart, and visited fourteen houses. This was as much as I could do in one day. I am not sure that I did any good, but I still gave a few souls a chance to know a little something of our Gospel. I haven’t been out since, and I don’t know when I shall go again, but it is my intention to do some tracting this summer, if I can with baby.” [9]
The difficulties of serving as young married couples, often with children, became quickly apparent to both mission presidents and the general authorities recruiting missionaries. Their awareness of the challenges is reflected in the tapering number of married woman missionaries: from 1898 to 1903 married women comprised over 60% of the female missionary force. During the subsequent decade the balance shifted dramatically: from 1904 to 1908 only about 40% of sister missionaries were married, and from 1909 to 1914 their numbers dwindled to less than 30%.[10]

Reactions

President Woodruff’s 1898 watershed decision surprised many. One of the first women to serve wrote, “We first heard, with some astonishment, that the young ladies of Zion ought to prepare themselves for missions to the world.” [11] Susa Young Gates and Joseph B. McMurrin were unabashed cheerleaders of the new direction. From 1898 to 1900 in her role as editor of the Young Woman’s Journal, Gates regularly published letters from woman missionaries. In 1903, McMurrin solicited the opinions of other mission presidents on their sister missionaries and he and Gates published the most glowing endorsements in the Journal. But not everyone shared McMurrin’s and Gates’s enthusiasm.
Heber J. Grant initially opposed the call of single sisters and felt that married sisters were a mere distraction to their husbands. Charles D. Penrose, President of the British Mission wrote that he did “not think [sister missionaries] are of any great utility.” Perhaps his wife looked over his shoulder at that moment because he hastened to add, “I have not counted Sister Penrose, but she is doing a good work among the sisters.”  As late as 1915, an editorial in the Improvement Era entitled “Do You Believe in Lady Missionaries?” noted, that “Quite a division of opinion prevails among the people on this question. . . . Do you believe in sending out young women to labor in the mission field? Or should mission work be done solely by the Priesthood?” [12]
But it was hard to argue with results. Mission presidents quickly learned that the sisters were more than holding their own. They voiced their contentment in terms that have become a stock line in Mormon discourse about sister missionaries ever since: “Lady missionaries are getting into homes where the Elders could not obtain access.”
During the 25 years that followed Woodruff’s decision, the Church’s missions served as a laboratory in which general authorities, mission presidents, and pioneering “lady missionaries” worked out its implications by trial and error. The outlines of a Church-wide sister missionary policy gradually began to coalesce as a result of this robust experimentation.  Ultimately, the question posed by the Improvement Era editorial: “Do You Believe in Lady Missionaries?” was answered with a resounding “Yes!” By the mid-1920s, the 1898 decision, which at the time had been a radical break, had become the next generation’s new norm.

 

[1]See Kathryn M. Daynes, More Wives Than One: The Transformation of the Mormon Marriage System (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986); “Lowell C. Bennion, “Plural Marriage, 1841-1904,” in Brandon S. Plewe, ed., Mapping Mormonism: An Atlas of Latter-day Saint History (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 2013).
[2] Minutes of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, 4 March 1897, in Journal History, Church History Library.
[3] Minutes of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, 18 January 1896, in Journal History, Church History Library.
[4] Joseph F. Smith in “Remarks of President Joseph F. Smith, Seventeenth Ward Y.L.M.I.A.,” Young Woman’s Journal Vol. 9, No. 2 (February 1898), 84.
[5] See Matthew S. McBride, “I Could Have Gone into Every House,” http://history.lds.org/article/elizabeth-mccune-missionary?lang=eng
[6] Jennie Brimhall, “From Missionary Fields,” Young Woman’s Journal, Vol. 10, No. 3 (January 1899), 43.
[7] “The Little Missionary,” Chapter IV, Juvenile Instructor Vol. 34, No. 4 (February 15, 1899), 116.
[8] “Our Girls,” Young Woman’s Journal Vol. 11, No. 3 (March 1900), 126, 127.
[9]Blanche Woodruff Daynes, British Mission, quoted in “Our Girls,” Young Woman’s Journal, Vol. 11, no. 6 (June 1900), 279.
[10] Missionary Registers, Books C and D, Church History Library.
[11]“Our Girls,” Young Woman’s Journal vol. 11, no. 3 (March 1900), 126, 127.
[12] Do You Believe in Lady Missionaries?,” Improvement Era, Vol. 17, No. 1 (November 1915), 144

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5 Comments

  1. Do we know when the calling of young married sisters ceased entirely? I know my grandmother accompanied my grandfather (as a missionary) for about the last year of his mission. I think it would have been about 1927 (give or take a little). He had started a three year mission shortly after they got married.

    Comment by Spencer — June 6, 2014 @ 3:28 pm

  2. I am aware of couples in their mid-30s, with children, who were called to serve missions as late as 1975. These were by then rare exceptions.

    Comment by Matt M. — June 6, 2014 @ 7:24 pm

  3. A recently married young couple were called to go to China from my then stake about 20 or so years ago. The husband had previously served in Taiwan, so had learned Mandarin. It wasn’t clear to me what they were going to do in China though.

    Comment by Hedgehog — June 6, 2014 @ 11:48 pm

  4. This is really interesting stuff, Matt. Thanks.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 7, 2014 @ 8:40 pm

  5. Late to the party, but this was such a great read. Thanks for the article!

    Comment by Rachael — June 23, 2014 @ 10:51 am