Women Proclaiming the Gospel on Missions

An Historical Overview

By Sarah Elizabeth Jensen

THE HISTORY OF FEMALE MISSIONARY SERVICE within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is rich. Although the function of sister missionaries has evolved over time, the goal of women who serve has always been the same: to bring souls to Christ. A brief historical overview of female LDS missionary service illustrates the essential role of women in proclaiming the restored gospel. It also elucidates the complexities inherent in a Church policy that does not encourage women to serve missions but welcomes and readily makes use of those who desire to.

1830-1898

Women have been involved in missionary activity since the Church was organized in 1830. The earliest female missionaries were women who went on missions primarily for the purpose of accompanying their husbands or other male relatives. This was the case with Lucy Mack Smith who journeyed to Pontiac, Michigan in 1830 with her son, Hyrum, to help preach to her family who had settled there.[1] Likewise, Emma Smith traveled with Joseph as he spread the gospel.

On the whole, however, female missionary service was rare at this time. Calvin S. Kunz lists fewer than fifteen other women who traveled with male missionaries during the remainder of the 1830s and 1840s.[2] This number may be partly explained by the fact that at this point in history, the Church was still a fledgling organization with a small membership. It can further be traced to an 1850 directive from Heber C. Kimball that advised the elders that had been called “to leave their families at home, and then their minds will be more free to serve the Lord.”[3]

Although female missionaries were not officially set apart until 1865, there are records of women receiving blessings prior to their missionary service well before then. Joseph Smith blessed the wives of male missionaries as early as 1839 and in 1850, Louisa Barns Pratt (who accompanied her husband, Addison, to the Society Islands) recorded being blessed, set apart and ordained by Brigham Young. “Brother Young blessed me,” she wrote. “He said I was called, set apart, and ordained to go to the Islands of the sea to aid my husband in teaching the people.”[4] These women aside, the majority of the 220 women that served missions betweens 1830 and 1898 (when sister missionaries were first certified) lacked definitive roles and official missionary status.[5]

Even without status, early female missionaries nonetheless thrust in their sickles. The work they performed in the mission field was a natural extension of their female sphere, such as “writing letters, cleaning house, preparing meals and tending children.”[6] Teaching also became a popular area of activity for early female missionaries. In 1865, Mildred E. Randall opened an English language school on the Church-owned Laie, Hawaii plantation, and Louisa Barns Pratt spent every day at an old prayer house in Tahiti “teaching the native children in their own language to read and write.”[7]

In time, female missionaries were given leadership responsibilities and were called upon to speak in public, teach, and expound scripture. Harriet D. Bunting, for example, set up the first Relief Society and Young Ladies Mutual Improvement Association in the British Mission, and Sarah L.C. Partridge and Elizabeth L. Noall—both wives of missionaries—served as Relief Society presidents in their respective missions.[8] A small minority of women, such as Sister Ida L. Roberts of the Samoan Islands Mission, began accompanying their husbands in work assigned to male missionaries, such as tracting and visiting with the public.[9] However, Church policy regarding women’s role in the mission field—as given by Parley P. Pratt in 1840—dictated that “women may pray, testify, speak in tongues and prophesy in the Church,” but only “when liberty is given them by the Elders.”[10] As such, women’s early efforts to lead auxiliary Church organizations and to proselytize were closely directed by priesthood authorities as they are today.

In 1865, thirteen women were called and set apart to serve with their husbands and appeared on official Church records as missionaries for the first time. Single sisters were also set apart as missionaries. During this period, women’s missionary work took all forms; some sisters studied at schools in the East or in Europe, others completed genealogical research. Still others were called as “home missionaries to teach about Church programs and organizations to other women in distant Utah settlements.”[11] Even so, emphasis was placed on marriage as each young woman’s priority. In an 1890 article in the Young Women’s Journal, young women were instructed “that proclaiming the gospel to nations of the earth” was “not [their] mission.” After all, “are not the souls of those born in Zion as precious to the Lord’s sight, as those who are brought from afar?”[12]

1898-1945

Between 1879 and 1889 the average number of women associated with missionary work per year was four. Between 1890 and 1898 that number jumped to thirteen.[13] In 1898, Latter-day Saint female missionaries were finally granted “official” status and became certified missionaries like their male counterparts.[14] The first two single, full-time certified proselyting sister missionaries, Amanda Inez Knight and Lucy Jane Brimhall, were called that same year.[15]

There are numerous factors that led the Church to certify full-time single sister missionaries, but a letter from European Mission President Joseph W. McMurrin to the First Presidency appears to have been particularly influential. McMurrin’s letter highlighted occasions where the sisters “gained attention in England where the Elders could scarcely gain a hearing.”[16] Other local Church leaders wrote letters echoing McMurrin “in reference to the good which could be and is accomplished by lady missionaries from Zion.”[17] Heeding these requests, George Q. Cannon, then a counselor in the First Presidency, announced at the April 1898 General Conference, “To some lands under some circumstances suitable women might go . . .”[18]

Single sisters’ entrance as certified members into the full-time missionary force took some getting used to for the elders. When Amanda Inez Knight and Lucy Jane Brimhall arrived in England, for example, many of the male missionaries were confused as to their role. They questioned “whether or not the sisters’ callings were equal to their own.”[19] The mission presidency explained that the same authority that called the elders called the sisters too. The similarity in their duties reflected this equality. The sisters “distributed pamphlets door to door, held street meetings, and participated in Church conferences.”[20]

Male missionary service was greatly affected by the two world wars and this opened up new opportunities for sister missionaries. The Church withdrew its missionaries from Europe after the onset of World War I, and because of the many young LDS men serving in the armed forces, there were few available to perform missionary service in other parts of the world. The Church did not recruit women to compensate for the lack of men but many volunteered; from 1913 to 1917 more than 650 women served missions, comprising twenty-two percent of the missionary army of that time. The roles they filled were generally female-oriented (secretaries and stenographers) and, though they went faithfully, some regarded women as less effective because “they could not do as much as the elders because they were not in the Priesthood.”[21]

Others declared female missionaries to be an unqualified success. A 1915 report from the Eastern States Mission published in the Improvement Era stated that “the idea of having lady missionaries is new in this mission, but is no longer an experiment. The faithful labors of these sisters have gone far in making the mission what it is today. Neither their devotion can be questioned nor their industry criticized.”[22] David O. McKay, in 1921, noted that “many an instance has driven home the fact of the sweetness, potency, and permanency of the work of our lady missionaries.”[23] And later that decade, at the October 1928 General Conference, a Mission President noted that young ladies “can get into the homes of the people and find an opportunity for explaining the gospel where the elder cannot go. Send us more lady missionaries.”[24] By the 1930s, Church leaders seemed to widely acknowledge that female missionaries profited the work.[25]

In 1941, however, the threat posed to the safety of sister missionaries by World War II caused the First Presidency to temporarily discontinue female missionary service.[26] Three exceptions were eventually made to this policy in 1943. The Church allowed sisters to serve who 1) were skilled in stenography and could assist in mission offices, 2) were professional school teachers and could volunteer to spend their off-time in missionary service, and 3) were the wives of men beyond the draft age who desired to accompany their husbands into the field. Even with the restrictions, it is estimated that during World War II, female missionaries comprised 40 percent of the Church’s missionary force.[27]

1945-1990

Beginning immediately following the end of World War II, the number of male missionaries serving soared and continued to into the 1950s. In 1951 the Church decided to postpone calling sister missionaries until they reached the age of twenty-three to facilitate marriage and “to keep the number going relatively small.”[28] In January of 1953 the minimum age was lowered to twenty-one for a few sisters with special skills but was returned to twenty-three in July of that same year.[29] The Church’s desire to encourage marriage at a younger age and to discourage activities that competed with family life was consistent with a trend in the larger post-war society that emphasized traditional gender roles and family life.

Continued recruiting of able missionaries occurred throughout the 1960s, but these efforts were focused on young men. At this time the First Presidency changed the minimum age for all male missionaries to nineteen. Shortly thereafter, in 1964, the First Presidency dropped the age requirement for sister missionaries to twenty-one. In so doing they warned that “normal social opportunities leading to proper marriage [should] not be interrupted nor disturbed by such recommendations.”[30] Very little is known as to why this policy change regarding female missionaries’ age of eligibility was made. Tania Rands Lyon and Mary Ann Shumway McFarland have posited that “the established success of other women missionaries and the lowering of the minimum age for men several years earlier paved the way.”[31]

In 1971, the First Presidency cut back the length of female missionary service from twenty-four to eighteen months. Articles in Church magazines throughout the 1970s—during the height of the women’s liberation movement—contained iterations of the Church’s long-standing position on female missionary service: female missionaries have much to offer in the mission field, but their primary responsibility is marriage. All of the positive statements about the virtues of sister missionaries uttered by Church leaders at this time were tempered by caveats that explained the preeminence of marriage over missionary service. A statement by Elder Loren H. Dunn in a 1975 Ensign article illustrates the Church’s position well: “Missionary work is primarily a priesthood responsibility . . . the finest mission a young woman can perform is the role of wife and mother.”[32]

At the 1985 General Relief Society Meeting, Gordon B. Hinckley, then an apostle, affirmed Elder Dunn’s statement, noting that “we regard a happy marriage as the greatest mission any young woman can enjoy.”[33]

1990-present

Not much had changed when President Hinckley again outlined the Church’s position with regard to female missionary service in a 1997 address. “I say what has been said before that missionary work is essentially a priesthood responsibility. . . . To the sisters I say you will be as highly respected, you will be considered as being as much in the line of duty, your efforts will be as acceptable to the Lord and to the Church whether you go on a mission or do not go on a mission.”[34]

Lyon and McFarland indicate that female missionary service did decline immediately following the 1997 statement from President Hinckley.[35] Now there is evidence to suggest that the number has once again crept up. Although the Church does not release missionary numbers by gender, it is estimated that in 2003, there were almost 9,000 sisters in the mission field—approximately 15% of the total missionary force.[36] Missionary service is popular among Latter-day Saint women today for several reasons.

First, women in the Church, like women outside of it, are demonstrating a greater willingness to “postpone marital and family aspirations until later in their lives than customarily has been the Mormon norm.”[37] Second, greater numbers of sisters are choosing to serve because of the many personal benefits that they perceive come of righteous service. They “want to learn more theology and doctrine, have spiritual growth, get more life experience, have leadership opportunities; they also like the challenges of competition and the increased confidence they gain.”[38]

Third, Latter-day Saint female missionaries of today seem to be afflicted by fewer negative stereotypes. Where sister missionaries have in the past been viewed as “husband-hunting, mentally unfit, over-emotional, aggressive and unfeminine,” many of these stigmas have since been dispelled.[39] As Jesse Embry, who collected oral histories of former female missionaries, has explained, “Rather than snickering at ‘old maid lady missionaries,’ some young men hope to marry a returned sister missionary who can share similar memories, commitments and goals.”[40]

Finally, today’s sister missionary can expect to have a mission experience that is remarkably comparable to that of her male counterpart. In an oral history, one former sister missionary noted that “a sister missionary isn’t much different than most other missionaries. We love dinner appointments, member referrals and preparation days. We hate rainy days, doors slammed in our faces, and rude elders.”[41] Although the fact that female missionaries do not hold the priesthood does make their experience different in some ways, Embry found that most sister missionaries believed that “men’s ordination to the priesthood was largely irrelevant to the quality or the nature of the women’s missionary effort.”[42] While they do not hold the priesthood, sisters today do have the opportunity to function in other capacities: as senior companion, trainer, district leader (in all-female districts) or lead sister.

Counsel regarding sister missionary service has essentially remained unchanged—apart from minor alterations in the age and length of service and in basic roles and functions— since the earliest days of the Church. Despite a long-standing policy that has continuously emphasized the preeminence of marriage over missionary service for women, Latter-day Saint women have from the beginning voluntarily opened their mouths: teaching, exhorting, explaining, counseling, singing, praising, praying, pleading, and bearing fervent testimony. Those women who today continue the legacy of Amanda Inez Knight and Lucy Jane Brimhall build upon the work of many female predecessors, those stalwart women who have moved forward the Lord’s kingdom in the latter days.

[1] Calvin S. Kunz, “A History of Female Missionary Activity in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830-1898” (Masters thesis, Brigham Young University, 1976), 11.

[2] Ibid., 12-17.

[3] Ibid., 17.

[4] Ibid., 19.

[5] Ibid., 38.

[6] Ibid., 58.

[7] Ibid., 59-62.

[8] Ibid., 62.

[9] Ibid., 69.

[10] Ibid., 8.

[11] Maxine Hanks, Women and Authority: Re-Emerging Mormon Feminism (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989), 318.

[12] Jessie L. Embry, “LDS Sister Missionaries: An Oral History Response, 1910-70,” Journal of Mormon History 23, no. 1 (1999): 106.

[13] Kunz, “A History of Female Missionary Activity,” 27.

[14] Ibid., 31.

[15] Ibid., 54.

[16] Journal History, March 11, 1898, 2, quoted in Kunz, 35.

[17] Journal History, March 11, 1898, 2, quoted in Kunz, 35.

[18] George Q. Cannon, General Conference Address, Official Report of the Sixty-Eighth Annual Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, April 6,7,8, and 10, 1898 (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), 7, quoted in Kunz, 35-36.

[19] Kunz, “A History of Female Missionary Activity,” 37.

[20] Embry, “LDS Sister Missionaries,” 108.

[21] Hanks, Women and Authority, 319.

[22] Anonymous, “Messages from the Missions,” The Improvement Era 18 (March 1915), quoted in Tania Rands Lyon and Mary Ann Shumway McFarland, “Not Invited, But Welcome: The History and Impact of Church Policy on Sister Missionaries.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 36 (2003): 71-100.

[23] David O. McKay, “Our Lady Missionaries,” Young Woman’s Journal; XXXII (1921): 503, quoted in Lyon and McFarland, “Not Invited, But Welcome,” 77.

[24] Elder John G. Allred, President of the North-Central States Mission, Conference Report (October 1928): 59, quoted in Lyon and McFarland, 78.

[25] Embry, “LDS Sister Missionaries,” 110.

[26] Ibid., 111.v

[27] Hanks, Women and Authority, 319.

[28] Gordon B. Hinckley, “Ten Gifts from the Lord,” Ensign 15 (November 1985): 86.

[29] Lyon and McFarland, “Not Invited, But Welcome,” 100.

[30] Embry, 114-115.

[31] Lyon and McFarland, “Not Invited, But Welcome,” 80.

[32] William O. Nelson, “I Have a Question,” Ensign 5 (April 1975): 19.

[33] Gordon B. Hinckley, “Ten Gifts from the Lord,” Ensign 15 (November 1985): 86.

[34] Gordon B. Hinckley, “Some Thoughts on Temples, Retention of Converts, and Missionary Service,” Ensign 27 (November 1997): 49.

[35] Lyon and McFarland refer to Hanks, who described the missionary force as being 20% female in the mid-1980s. A 2003 NewsNet article (see endnote 36) reported that in 2003, sisters comprised 15% of the total missionary force. If these numbers are accurate, Lyon and McFarland conclude that it would be correct to say that there was a significant drop or fluctuation in the number of women missionaries relative to men at some point during the 1990s.

[36] Britt Balkcom, “RMs wait for sister missionaries” NewsNet (Brigham Young University, February 18, 2003) http://newsnet.byu.edu/story.cfm/42371, quoted in Lyon and McFarland, “Not Invited, But Welcome,” 95.

[37] Gordon Shepherd and Gary Shepherd, “Membership Growth, Church Activity, and Missionary Recruitment,” Dialogue 29 (1996): 43.

[38] Hanks, Women and Authority, 328.

[39] Lyon and McFarland, “Not Invited, But Welcome,” 94.

[40] Embry, “LDS Sister Missionaries,” 101.

[41] Hanks, Women and Authority, 330.

[42] Embry, “LDS Sister Missionaries,” 139.

Sarah graduated from BYU with a BA in history and a minor in communications. She then went on to attend Harvard University where she earned an EdM in management and policy. Sarah now lives in Washington D.C. where she works as a Presidential Management Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education. She served in the Wisconsin, Milwaukee mission from May 2001-November 2002.

The author was interviewed at Blog Segullah on Thursday, October 19th.