“An Ardent Desire to Speak for Myself”: Lecture Explores Evolution of “Lady Missionaries”

Contributed By Marianne Holman Prescott, Church News staff writer

  • 29 April 2016

Jean Clara Holbrook, left, and Inez Knight, two of the first single women who served as Latter-day Saint missionaries. Photograph circa 1900.  Courtesy Church History Library.

Article Highlights

  • Many women had been serving in missionary capacities prior to being officially called to serve in 1898.
  • The ever-increasing number of sister missionaries has greatly increased the spreading of the gospel.

“The sending of Lady missionaries into the field … is very [evidently] directed by inspiration. … We hope their numbers may be increased.” —Platte Lyman, European Mission president, 1900

Although women had been serving in many of the capacities of a missionary for nearly half a century, the official “call” to serve as a full-time proselytizing missionary didn’t come until 1898, said Matthew S. McBride during the Church History Symposium on March 4, 2016.

Speaking in the Conference Center Little Theater on the topic “‘An Ardent Desire to Speak for Myself’: Pioneering Woman Missionaries, 1898–1920,” Brother McBride, who works in the Church History Department, discussed the evolution of “lady missionaries” and the important role they have played in missionary work in the last century.

“Though women had accompanied their husbands to the mission field for nearly half a century, this decision marked a major shift,” he said. “An ideology of separate spheres largely dictated the modes of women’s participation in the missions before 1898. Women accompanied their husbands and engaged in what was known in some Protestant traditions as ‘indirect mission’—providing a variety of support services for their husbands and other men who engaged in ‘direct mission’—or proselytizing, seeking to win converts for the Church.”

Brother McBride cited the impact sister missionaries have with the words of European Mission President Joseph McMurrin, when he said there were “instances in which our sisters gained attention in England, where the Elders could scarcely gain a hearing” and believed “that if a number of bright and intelligent women were called on missions to England, the results would be excellent.”

It was during a First Presidency meeting in March of 1898 that President Wilford Woodruff and his counselors, Joseph F. Smith and George Q. Cannon, considered two letters they had received from mission presidents. The request was unusual for the time as the two mission presidents—one from California and one from the European Mission—asked if women might be called as missionaries to serve in their missions.

“After brief deliberation, the First Presidency decided to call women as full-time proselytizing missionaries,” Brother McBride said. “According to the Presidency’s instructions, women missionaries were to be folded into existing mission structures, work alongside men, and do the same work as the elders, the one notable exception being the performance of ordinances such as baptism, which required priesthood ordination.”

Changing their influence from the then-accepted Victorian gender norms, women went from teaching children in schools, doing charitable work, and helping with many of the domestic responsibilities of life to a more parallel approach with the elders of the time.

“The vision outlined for the new Mormon missionary force was gender-integrated: men and women, working together, more equally yoked than ever before in terms of responsibilities if not in numbers,” Brother McBride said.

In his presentation, Brother McBride spoke of the factors that led to the decision to call “lady missionaries” and how a gender-integrated missionary force changed missionary work.

A few years after the announcement banning plural marriage, the demographic of young, educated, unmarried women began to rise, creating a group of women available to serve missions. Although the women serving missions were small in number, the new “lady missionary” force led the way to what it is today.

Women’s experiences

“This was a very male world they came to inhabit,” Brother McBride said.

In the beginning, sisters were taught alongside the men. Although hymns were often gender-exclusive and the women were small in number, many of the sisters found humor in the situation.

“The early sisters took most of this with good humor and adapted rather quickly to the rigors of missionary life,” Brother McBride said. “The distribution of tracts was the most common proselytizing method for both men and women in the missions of Europe and United States. ‘Lady missionaries,’ like their male counterparts, would each take one side of the street and go from door to door with the invitation, ‘Would you like a gospel tract?’ Thus began many a missionary adventure.”

Tracting, street and park meetings, and singing were some of the ways women were able to teach people not only about the gospel but also about misconceptions about members of the Church.

“On the whole, Mormon women experienced missionary service as a liberating expansion of their sphere of action,” Brother McBride said. “Elizabeth McCune, the proto-missionary whose poise and eloquence had inspired [President] McMurrin’s letter, later wrote that her experience publicly defending the Church fulfilled an ‘ardent desire’ she had to ‘speak for herself.’”

Men’s experiences

“Over these first few years, a number of mission presidents expressed their opinion, both privately and on the public record, that sister missionaries ‘do much or more good than many of our elders,’ were ‘better students and as a result much better speakers,’” said Brother McBride.

Because of the sister missionaries’ success, some of the elders had a “difficult time concealing their anxiety … for the ‘lady missionary’ experiment.”

Despite some differences of opinion, the transition to “lady missionaries” as part of the Church’s missionary force helped in bringing forth a great work.

“The sending of Lady missionaries into the field … is very [evidently] directed by inspiration. … We should be glad to see more of them like those we have here now, and we hope their numbers may be increased,” wrote European Mission President Platte Lyman to the First Presidency in 1900.

The original “experiment” of sending out women to serve as missionaries was, for the most part, a positive experience.

“Almost without exception, and in spite of a variety of reservations, mission presidents could see that women could get in doors that the elders could not,” Brother McBride said. “This stock line in sister missionary discourse has persisted, has been repeated by several recent Church Presidents, and was echoed in a 2014 New York Times article on the effectiveness of sister missionaries.

“Though the call of women was initially viewed as an experiment, women began to be called in greater numbers in 1910, and after 20 years in the trenches their track record spoke for itself. The answer almost all Church leaders would have given to the question ‘Do you believe in lady missionaries?’ was a resounding yes.”

To learn more about “lady missionaries,” visit the Church History website.