On January 13, 1901, Sister Josephine Booth and her companion visited yet another home and offered a man a “Mormon tract.” The man, referring to the Church’s past practice of plural marriage, remarked smugly, “My goodness, woman, I’m too much married already.” Josephine wrote in her journal that since the man “looked ill-treated,” she decided not to lecture him about marriage.1
Josephine Booth was a pioneer sister missionary, one of the first single sister missionaries called. She served in Glasgow, Scotland, from 1899 to 1901, and in her journal she recorded challenges she faced acting as an ambassador not only for the Church but specifically for Mormon women.
The First Presidency authorized the calling of the first sister missionaries in March 1898.2 Several mission presidents had asked for sister missionaries in order to help break down deep prejudices against the Church. One popular perception held that Mormon women were mindless polygamous slaves and that the elders were in England to secretly recruit plural wives.
By their presence and teaching, Josephine and her companions exemplified Mormon womanhood and helped refute these claims. People were often surprised to meet a poised, articulate “lady missionary.” Josephine said she felt others “at a distance eying us as though we were creatures belonging to another sphere.” When she spoke at meetings, people sometimes “came in off the street to see a Mormon woman.”3
Josephine wrote that one “stately looking” woman “was very curious to see some real live Mormons, [so] she came to have a look at us.” The conversation went well, and Josephine wrote that the woman “seemed very friendly and said she wished her boy could see us, as he was quite opposed to our people.”4
The sisters were assigned neighborhoods to canvas door-to-door, distributing tracts, or pamphlets. In a typical month Josephine would give out 600 to 700 tracts and have gospel conversations with about 30 individuals or families. She often wrote of being exhausted spiritually and physically by her work. Yet after a successful conversation she would feel “quite happy, as I always do when I find some one willing to listen.”5
The missionaries typically “met many frowns and few smiles” while tracting. Cold moments of rejection led Josephine to write despairingly, “This is a cold hard-hearted world.”6 However, she rejoiced in the small gains she made as she worked with investigators. She and her companion taught the gospel to a Mrs. Milne and her daughters. “Mr. Milne,” Josephine wrote, “although extremely bitter against our people at first, has sufficiently thawed out to shake hands very heartily and say, ‘How is our missionary girl to day?’” She then wrote, “Our girl smiled her very best smile and inwardly wished that … the warmth of the gospel might send away the frost altogether.”7
In addition to the rigors of tracting, early sisters were frequently called upon to speak at street meetings. Josephine wrote of one early experience: “Went to a street meeting. Had an attentive crowd but after the meeting was over, a fellow jumped into the ring and opposed us.”8 These confrontations taught Josephine and the other missionaries how to better articulate and defend their beliefs.
Josephine also frequently spoke at larger, more formal gatherings, typicallyon Sundays. Over time she gained confidence as a speaker. She was invited several times to St. George’s in the Fields—a large place of worship belonging to the Church of Scotland—to speak to a youth temperance organization called the Band of Hope. She was introduced as a “‘Mormon’ missionary girl from Utah” and spoke on general religious and moral topics such as honesty.9 After her first speech, several women congratulated her on her remarks and invited her to speak at charity meetings. She concluded her entry for that day, “I got so excited over it all that I couldn’t sleep.”10
The pages of Josephine’s journal are alive with intricate descriptions of local churches, museums, markets, factories, and theater productions. She and the other missionaries took every opportunity to participate in important events, visit historic sites, and adopt local customs.
There were also dreadful moments. Josephine wrote of a confrontation she had with a drunken man who got “quite sociable” with her. She screamed and ran as he chased her “amid many roars of laughter.” That night, she wrote, “I dreamed of drunken men and persecuted Mormons.”11 On another occasion, she and Sister Eliza Chipman felt prompted to hire a private car to take them home in order to avoid a man who had been following them.12 The sisters also endured a flea infestation in their apartment. She recorded, “I come out [of] my ‘retirement’ about three times every night to continue my flea hunts. Talk about Stanley in the wilds of Africa hunting lions. He will never know what ‘diligent hunting’ is till he hunts fleas.”
Josephine served with two companions: first Eliza Chipman and then Emily Penfold. She typically got along well with them, though like most missionaries, they had moments of frustration with each other. While looking for an address, Sister Chipman once told Josephine that she “would pity us if you were to be our guide.” When Sister Chipman got them lost along the way, Josephine retorted that she “did not think that it would have been much worse if I had been leading.” In her journal she confided, “It is hard to fight against the world and the girl I live with.”13
She also made friends with the elders. At the time, elders and sisters did many things together: ate meals, went sightseeing, attended social functions, preached, folded and distributed tracts, and accompanied each other to meetings. Because there were no policies or precedents explaining how elders and sisters should interact, they learned as they went along.
At a branch meeting in November 1900, one of the members in Glasgow complained that the elders were “dangling around after the sisters.” Though she was “astounded at the awful accusation”14 and felt neither she nor the elders had done anything wrong, she understood the importance of maintaining the trust of the members.
A few days later, she “gave the boys a talk.” She was “afraid we were too light minded” and “didn’t want us by any act of ours to retard the work.” In spite of the elders’ protestations, she insisted, “We must be more serious. Not that we have done any thing wrong—but—well, we must work more, think more, and pray more.”15
This talk helped put their relationship on a more formal footing. But the good-humored elders did not let her lecture go without a response. They visited the sisters’ apartment a few days later, “sat down, and each taking a bible from their pocket began to read.” They also brought a book called How to Behave, and “there they sat as solemn as two owls.” “It was so funny,” recorded Josephine, “that I fairly roared.”16
As Josephine’s mission drew to a close, the mission presidency assigned her to visit branches throughout Europe as an example of the good work that sister missionaries were doing. Following Josephine’s talk in Denmark, a member recognized the impact she had on those in attendance and said, “Sister Booth the Lord is pleased with your work. … Your testimony has been borne in power.”
Reflecting on her service as a missionary, Josephine, like some missionaries, struggled with feelings of inadequacy, but she overcame them with the Lord’s support. “In [God’s] mercy he forgives and loves me, because I want to be his daughter in very deed.”17
Josephine may not have fully realized her impact on the world and the Church, but the efforts of Josephine Booth and dozens of other pioneering “lady missionaries” blazed a new trail, marking the way for today’s sisters.